Edo period ryobiraki chest on chest were used by merchant class women for personal clothing storage.

Tansu is the traditional mobile storage cabinetry indigenous to Japan. Tansu was first recorded in the Genroku era of the Edo Period (1688–1704). The two characters, TAN and SU, appear to have initially represented objects with separate functions: the storage of food and the carrying of firewood. Since the radical for bamboo appears in each of these characters, it may be conjectured that wood was not as yet used.[1]

During the time period in which tansu gradually became a feature of Japanese culture and daily life, 1657–1923, both hard and softwoods were used by Tansuyas (tansu craftsmen), often in practical combination for a single chest. Woods commonly used in tansu included Keyaki (elm), Kuri (chestnut), Ezo matsu (pine), Sugi (cedar), Kiri (paulownia) and Hinoki (cypress).

Many collectors focus on finding genuine antique tansu. There are few workshops producing tansu in imitation of the classic antiques due to the high cost of materials and the very low prices of secondhand tansu. Larger chests are sometimes reduced in size, particularly futon chests, step chests and other chests with deep drawers . Some reproduction tansu have been reproduced in Korea using keyaki veneer.

Historical context

Ryobiraki tansu being carried by hired porters from a woodblock print by Utagawa Toyokuni dated 1807.

Tansu were rarely used as stationary furniture. Consistent with Japan's minimalist aesthetic, traditional homes appeared rather empty. Tansu were not visible in the home except at certain times for specific situations. They were kept in kura (storehouses) adjacent to homes or businesses, in nando (storage rooms), in oshiire (house closet alcoves), on choba (raised platform area of a shop) and on some sengokubune (coastal ships). Mobility was obtained through the use of attached wheels, iron handles for carrying or protruding structural upper rails for lifting.

Because the Edo Period was feudal in its socio-economic structure, rules concerning ownership dominated all classes from peasant to samurai. Travelling was regulated and conspicuous consumption discouraged through sumptuary laws. Tansu from this time primarily reflect the class and occupation of the owner rather than any regionally inspired originality. With the coming of the Meiji Restoration of imperial authority in 1868, and the gradual disintegration of the rigid class structure, distinctive regional characteristics could now flourish.[2]

Types of tansu

Edo period - Class determined

Nagamochi kuruma wheeled trunks are the oldest documented category of tansu.
Edo citizens trying to escape advancing flames with their chests on wheels during the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657. Woodblock print taken from the Musashi Abumi published in 1661.
Merchant's house from the Edo Period to Meiji Period.(Fukagawa Edo Museum)

Meiji period - Regional diversification


Kakesuzuri funa dansu were Edo period shipboard chests for seals, money, charts and documents.

Literally meaning ship’s chests, this often exotic cabinetry was used by the captain or owner of small coastal trading vessels licensed by the feudal Shogunate to transport rice. These vessels would travel from the bountiful but remote countryside to the teeming cities on the kitamae route between Osaka and Hokkaido through the Inland Sea and up the Japan Sea coast. With the enforced closure of the country in 1633 and a prohibition against the construction of ships with a keel, more than two masts and a cargo capacity exceeding 89,760 liters (2550 bushels) in 1636, the Shogun inadvertently crippled the transport of rice grown on Japanese lands, resulting in shortages and even riots in some urban areas. The problem was largely alleviated through reforms of the coastal navigation infrastructure and regulations suggested by Kawamura Zuiken in 1670. Among his implemented recommendations was the designation of reliable sea transporters of government rice as goyochonin (merchants representing the interests of the shogunate). As well, he convinced the authorities to allow properly designated vessels to trade for their own account at coastal towns en route. Though most certainly an inducement to shipping traders, there was a physical constraint that stood in the way of predictable success. The ships, though impressive in construction, were usually under 90 feet in length, with a scant crew of eleven or less. Coastal townspeople were not always impressed when these mariners arrived. There is evidence that from the Kyōhō era of Edo (1716–1735), specific designs of elaborate cabinetry began to be used on the kitamae route. Well into the Meiji period, when a sengokubune (1000 koku ship) would arrive at a coastal town for trading, the crew would ceremoniously off load the captain/owner’s personal tansu to be then positioned strategically at the place where negotiations would be held, thus lending a calculated air of affluence and respectability to the visitor’s aura.

Funa-dansu evolved into three categories of design:

Funa-dansu that were intended for shipboard use were always constructed of Keyaki for all exterior exposures with Kiri for interior compartments and drawer or box linings.[18]

Types of hardware

Sendai-dansu for kimono, zelkova wood, note the elaborate ironwork, handles on side for transportation, and lockable compartment
Detail of lockable compartment of a Sendai-dansu

Although decorative to the contemporary eye, conditioned by exposure to the refined furniture traditions of China, Britain and Europe, tansu hardware remained largely functional through the Meiji Period. Because the joinery of cases was simple and thus flexible to facilitate structural integrity during movement from place to place, hardware placement at vulnerable points was consistent with the need for reliability. Until the introduction of iron plate pressing from England in the 1880s, all iron for hardware was forged. With the introduction of western technology, tansu hardware can now be easily made more decorative with creative embellishments besides being functional.[19]


Tansu finishes fall into two categories: dry and lacquered. For a dry finish, clay or chalk powder was rubbed into the soft wood surface (kiri, sugi or hinoki) then burnished with an Eulalia root whisk. For lacquer (Rhus verniciflua), application could be only for sealing the plain wood to enhance a natural visible grain or for the creation of a perfect opaque surface.[20]


  1. Heineken (1981), p. 9.
  2. Heineken (1981), pp. 30–32.
  3. 1 2 Heineken (1981), p. 55.
  4. Heineken (1981), p. 43.
  5. Heineken (1981), pp. 55, 113, 126.
  6. Meader, Robert F. W. (1972). Illustrated guide to Shaker furniture. Page: 87. Publisher: Courier Dover Publications, New York
  7. Heineken (1981), pp. 21-23, 42-43, 48.
  8. Vermeulen, Ton & van der Velde, Paul (1986). The Deshima Dagregisters. Publisher: Leiden Centre for the History of European Expansion, Leiden
  9. Heineken (1981), pp. 30-31, 56.
  10. Heineken (1981), pp. 100-103, 113, 121-123.
  11. Heineken (1981), pp. 106-108, 116, 134.
  12. Heineken (1981), pp. 119, 158-159.
  13. Heineken (1981), pp. 110-111, 118, 134.
  14. Heineken (1981), pp. 111, 135.
  15. Heineken (1981), pp. 147, 159, 160.
  16. Heineken (1981), pp. 145, 157.
  17. Heineken (1981), pp. 117, 124-125, 129, 132, 136, 137, 139, 140-143.
  18. Heineken (1981), pp. 57–99.
  19. Heineken (1981), pp. 187–218.
  20. Heineken (1981), pp. 219–230.

Additional reading

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