Any antique-furniture lover who believes in form following function can’t help but appreciate Japanese tansu. Meant to be portable, these ingenious storage devices were stripped down to their bare essentials—no extraneous features, not even legs, to impede their portability. Some even had wheels to make them more mobile.
But, while always functional, they still made a statement, says Dane Owen, owner of Shibui, an Asian antique store in Brooklyn, New York—“a dramatic combination of utility and beauty.” This is especially true for those made during the Meiji era (1868-1912), which is considered to be the Golden Age of tansu-making. Below you will find a tally of some of the most common tansu types along with a few rarities to seek.
As you're reading, be sure to take note that the Japanese word “tansu”, which literally means “cabinetry,” becomes “dansu” when linked with another word.
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Step Chests (Kaidan-Dansu)
This style of chest is the one most Westerners picture when they think of tansu: the stair-step chest. A wonderful combination of architecture and furniture, it really did function as a staircase, as well as a storage unit. You can't get more functional than that.
Kaidan-dansu, the Japanese name for these types of chests, aren’t usually made of the most valuable materials—the one at left is made of sugi (cedar), a relatively inexpensive wood—but they often command high prices. This is due both to their uniqueness and their relative rarity. Everyone in a family would have a clothing chest (as shown below), Owen notes, but “How many staircases would a house have?”
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Clothing Chests (Isho-Dansu)
Clothing chests may be more common than Kaidan shown above, but they can still be quite beautifully crafted. These pieces are usually quite colorfully lacquered and adorned with ornate iron hardware. They were popular wedding gifts in their day.
Isho-dansu came in two types. Some had single sections, like the one depicted at left. Others were double-section, which had one chest stacked upon another. The configuration of several full drawers, with a couple of small ones and perhaps a safe, is typical of isho-dansu of the Meiji era (1868-1912). This era is considered the Golden Age of tansu-making, and tansu from this period are very desirable.
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Merchant Chests (Choba-Dansu)
Chests for shopkeepers and businessmen were among the first tansu developed, paralleling the rise of the merchant class in Japan during the Edo period (1613-1868). No self-respecting business owner would do trade without a chest of this type to store records securely.
Although a range of regional styles exists, choba-dansu are characterized by multiple compartments of varying sizes, invariably including one for ledgers – indicated by a pair of square sliding doors, Owen notes. And also—“lots of locks,” like those of forged iron on the chest at left.
See also the wheeled merchant's chest shown below, which is quite rare.
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Kitchen Chests (Mizuya-Dansu)
Kitchen chests, which developed in the later Edo period, were another sign of rising prosperity and the refined cooking and dining practices that accompanied it. Substantial pieces, they have large, roomy interiors and sections covered with wire, like Western pie cupboards.
Unlike other tansu, mizuya-dansu don’t have much hardware at all. They were, however, often decorated with simple, carved designs, as is the one at left. Mizuya-dansu typically have a rich, reddish-brown patina—created by cooking-fire smoke found in kitchens, Owen says.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Sea Chests (Funa-Dansu)
For many collectors, sea chests represent the crème de la crème of tansu. They tend to be made of the most expensive materials—keyaki wood (Japanese elm) for the exterior and hand-forged iron hardware—and of the highest craftsmanship, to ensure they’d be watertight.
Those made in Sado Island, like the one at left, are among the most valuable, according to Owen. Iron hardware was a status symbol, and the substantial amount of it on the locks and handles on this funa-dansu suggests its owner was socially prominent—or aspiring to be—and intent on traveling extensively by sea.
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Wheeled Chests (Kuruma-Dansu)
Wheeled chests were among the earliest form of tansu; references to them date as far back as 1657. Serving a variety of purposes, they’re quite large and quite rare. The 19th-century kuruma-dansu at left is a merchant’s chest, made of utilitarian sugi (cedar) wood. Finding a wonderful example of Kuruma-Dansu is a holy grail piece for many fans of Japanese antiques.