Origin of Tansu

The oldest signs of Japanese furniture or "tansu" date back to the 8th century. This period was particularly marked by chests and shelves of Chinese influence which were then only used by the court and the leading lords. It is only in the 18th century, in the mid-Edo era (1603-1868), when furniture has become popular in the common people's houses. However, it appeared with a specific characteristic to the Japanese dwellings: a deep interest in empty spaces and simplicity. The Japanese furniture is firstly used as a storage unit given its utilitarian nature, and this particularity makes it radically different from furniture found in the West which is primarily designed for pleasing the householders' eyes by decorating the large spaces of their residences, contrary to the Japanese interiors which are smaller.

It was with the end of the feudal system and the democratisation that came with the Meiji period (1868-1912) that Japanese furniture experienced its golden age. The abolition of the supreme power of the Samurai and tax regulations enabled people to live decently. They were no longer afraid to reveal what they owned, so furniture and various other objects began to proliferate. Most of the pieces found on the antique market today date back to this period. Older pieces were rarely kept by their owners, given their basically utilitarian nature. In Japan, as elsewhere, when things get damaged, they are replaced.

Design of Tansu

The simplicity of form, often using straight lines, and the restrained decorative style which make it possible to integrate the furniture into interiors which are often sober, dominated by empty spaces, have had a great influence on tansu design. The specific lifestyle (living without shoes, sitting on the floor) has also determined styles: no legs beneath pieces of furniture which are often low, with drawers and easily accessible while seated on the floor. This lifestyle, which is characteristic of Far-Eastern civilisations, will also have influenced the aesthetics of the furniture. Hence the front is far more important than the other sides, which are considerably less elaborate. Asymmetry is also an important element in furniture design. It is also found in other Japanese arts, such as ikebana (flower arrangement) or architecture.
Styles and Uses


Clothes Chest

Most common type of tansu. All clothing was folded flat therefore some form of a clothes chest was required by almost everyone. Styles included plain drawer, or bolted door, and many were stackable

Tea Chest

Also very common. Used to store teacups, teapots, chopsticks, and related items. Average size was 36" tall by 30" wide with drawers, cabinet space and, from Meiji era (1868-1912), glass doors.


Similar to tea chests in style, but larger. Used for kitchen storage.

Stairway Chest

Used when space was tight,
combining a usable stairs plus
storage underneath. From Edo
period (1600-1868).

Ledger Chest

Tansu were also used for commercial purposes. The ledger chest was generally small, but highly decorative to impress customers. Many had built-in safes and some combination of small drawers, sliding panels and doors.

Japanese furniture can often be divided into 2 or 3 parts with handles on the sides, which may call to mind trunks designed for travelling. In fact, it wasn't really for travelling, which was rare if not banned during the Edo period, in order to keep possible rebellion under tighter control. It was above all to "save the furniture" and property in the event of fire, a frequent occurrence because of typhoons and earthquakes, which easily destroyed houses made of wood and paper.
The woods used are mainly light, such as cedar and cypress, sometimes the far more highly prized paulownia, in order not to add too much weight to these "chests". More decorative, heavier woods, such as zelkova, chestnut, cherry or even shioji, tamo or persimmon are often used only for the front. Some woods imported from China are also used, particularly for decorative shelves. The front is often coated with lacquer which resembles our varnishes, allowing the grain of the wood to show through, or is covered with a thick opaque lacquer. The wood may also be left in its natural state, which is often the case with paulownia wood.
Ironwork is an important element in Japanese furniture : very sober in the South, on the island of Kyushu, it may become a genuine work of art, scarcely allowing the wood it covers to show through, for example in Sendai in the North.

In recent years the success of Japanese furniture has luckily given a rise to a market for reproductions which allow people interested in this type of furniture to purchase them at a very reasonable price.


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This page was last updated April 2020


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