In detail



By 1615, the Tokugawa shogunate had consolidated political and military power, an achievement that ushered in a period of social stability and nationwide peace known as the Edo period (1615-1868). In this secure climate, merchants of all types enriched themselves with the newly presented entrepreneurial opportunities. Coastal towns were transformed from quiet fishing villages into thriving ports where ship captains picked up and delivered timber, sake, fertiliser, and the all important taxation rice that Japanese villagers paid to the local daimyo and thence into the coffers of the shogunate. Rice was the foundation of the Edo~period economy and its basic currency. Town shopkeepers became wealthy as they sold an ever larger variety of goods, from clothing to crockery.

As the Edo period progressed, many of the warrior class became indebted to the merchant class, which prospered in part because of the disdainful indifference of the shogunate. The very nature of commercial transactions also changed in the Edo period. Money gradually supplanted rice as the primary medium of commercial exchange. The merchants profited doubly from this transition. First, they were the brokers who samurai turned to in order to trade their rice stipends for coins. Second, samurai used their exchanged coins to buy their daily necessities from the merchants. The circulation of coins eventually became commonplace, helped along by the policy of sankin kotai, under which daïmyo were required to spend alternating years residing in Edo.

The spectacular growth of tansu in the Edo period was a direct result of the rise of the chonin (merchant class). The cho was a city ward or neighbourhood, and the term chonin thus reflected the fact that Japanese tradesmen and artisans often lived in areas of town apart from the upper classes. Indeed, in Japan’s strictly defined social hierarchy, its merchant class had long been considered the lowest caste. It was in the context of an expanding economy and the attendant rise in fortunes for the merchant class that some of the earliest tansu appeared: the shipboard safes of the seafaring trader, the chests of the itinerant peddler selling his wares from village to village, the inventory storage of the urban shop. Mercantile tansu, used by merchants and artisans, not only provided design precedents for the variety of tansu that would follow, but they also paved the way for the popularisation of tansu with Japanese commoners. Tansu, with their fundamental connection to common people, were in stark contrast to the lacquered trunks and shelves that existed only in the households of warriors and Kyoto nobility.


Early mercantile tansu were made in three styles, each of which related to a specific area of commerce. Two of these early styles were portable, a feature that would soon become a distinct characteristic of tansu. First of these mercantile portable tansu were the gyosho-bako (pedlar boxes), the small chests of the traveling salesmen. They featured multiple compartments and were more like a cabinet than a box. Second of the early portable mercantile tansu were funa-dansu (ship chests). These chests held the documents and money of seafaring merchants and reflected the goods they carried on their ships and used for trade and sale in ports and towns. The third style of early mercantile tansu was shohin hikidashi (literally, merchandise drawers), the cabinetry in urban shops that housed the inventory of the merchant. These were the precursor to many household tansu styles.

The shopkeeper required a variety of chests in order to do business. These chests included zeni-bako (small coin boxes), suzuri-bako (boxes for writing supplies) and ledger chests. Artisans required boxes for tools and small chests for materials. Often exhibiting drawers, the tsukue (desk) was also nearby as a writing surface, making it a part of the story as well. In many instances we can identify merchant cabinetry by style and region. On the other hand, a fair number of merchant chests are anonymous, not identifiable by region or style.

The ledger chest known as choba-dansu, was to become the symbol for the merchant’s growth and status in late Edo and through out the Meiji period. Choba refers to the raised platform on which merchants of the time conducted business. On the choba stood such various furnishings as a desk, an abacus, and the choba-goshi, which is a low wood screen that separated the public sphere from the private space of business transactions. Ledger chests held the account books and seals; at day's end, they secured the smaller coin and writing boxes. They even held utensils for making and serving tea, which helped lubricate business dealings. Like the ship chests, they became status symbols and are known for the specific towns and regions-Sakai, Osaka, Matsumoto, Kanto, and Hokuriku that defined their character.

In our online catalogue

Click here to see those we have in our online catalogue

Ref: Japanese Cabinetry by David Jackson, Traditional Japanese Furniture by Kazuko Koizumi