Here at Old Japan we have a special selection of very good quality, antique Japanese Tansu. Because our store is small we carry only the best and the most beautiful Tansu, in good condition, and full of patina.

The Japanese Tansu we carry range in age from 70 to 125 years old. We carry Paulownia Stacking Chests, Sendai-Tansu, Nihonmatsu, and Yonezawa Tansu, all of which were originally used to store clothing in. We also carry an array of small Tansu chests used as Sewing Boxes, Calligraphy Boxes and Utility Chests. These can be viewed directly by visiting our store Old Japan, in the South End in Boston.

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Japanese Tansu Chests


Three Piece Stacking Paulownia Tansu

This style chest dates from the 1920's and 1930's, and was used to store good quality silk kimonos.

 Paulownia is a wood that was introduced into Japan via China and Korea. The Japanese soon learned to prize it for its pale color, beautiful grain and superb luster. The qualities of the wood made it structurally very strong, with little warping despite the fact that Paulownia is almost as light as balsa wood. Furthermore, although Paulownia wood burns, it has a unique refractoriness; even if the surface is carbonized in a fire, it will hold its shape without falling apart. Some important documents have been known to survive fires exactly because they were stored in Paulownia boxes. For all these reasons Paulownia chests were highly desirable to house important documents, scrolls, or silk kimonos.

Paulownia chests had another quality that helped protect expensive silk kimonos. Japan's month long rainy season is famous for producing mildew and mold on everything, and the unique structure of Paulownia wood helps to minimizes that. In a humid Japanese summer the Paulownia actually absorbs moisture which causes the wood to expand, forming an effective seal against more humidity and mildew, thus protecting the silk kimonos which are inside. During a dry winter, the wood contracts, allowing more air to pass through the chest, which effectively helps to air out the kimonos.

Because Paulownia was an expensive wood, each chest was usually custom ordered. Depending on how much money a family had to spend, they could order a chest made with as much or as little Paulownia as they wanted, using Pine or Japanese Cedar to supplement the Paulownia. Tansu that were made of 100% Paulownia were the most expensive available, and even then there were degrees of expense. You could order the wood to be cut very thinly, and save a bit of money, or you could order the best quality Paulownia, cut as thick as possible. If you wanted to spare no expense you could get a Paulownia Wood chest of drawers that were cut almost an inch in thickness. With the wood cut that thick the drawers could be resurfaced and planed (to remove soiling) a minimum of three times during the life of the chest. Thus, a Paulownia Wood Kimono Chest could be expected to last as long as a century.

Because Paulownia is a very light wood and dents easily, it needs to be used carefully, or "reverently", as the Japanese do. We also suggest that if you commit to owning a Paulownia chest, and if you live in an area of cold winters and strong central heating. you should also commit to using a humidifier in the same room as the chest, to prevent shrinkage and cracking of the wood. This is actually a good idea with any wood, or bamboo, or lacquer antique, but particularly so with Paulownia


Two Piece Stacking Yonezawa Tansu c.1890

Sendai, Yonezawa, and Nihonmatsu Tansu are all hard-wood, mahogany color chests with a clear lacquer finish, that are 100 to 125 years old. The names of each individual Tansu represent place names, and each is representative of a particular kind of elaborate, decorative iron hardware. Sometimes these chests divide up into two pieces (to make them easier to carry out of the house in a fire), while others are simply one large chest with four large drawers, and a few smaller drawers. Often these chests have small compartments that lock, and some of these even have a secret drawer in the back.

Sendai Tansu often have the most elaborate iron hardware lock plates stretching out across the front of each drawer. Yonezawa Tansu have a simpler, circular iron lock plate, and Nihonmatsu have squarish lock plates that often have elaborate configurations of cranes and turtles for good luck.

"That which functions well, looks well."
     - Bruno Taut, German Architect, 1930's