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The castle town of Sendai, in what is now Miyagi Prefecture, was also located in the region controlled by the Date clan. Situated near Pacific Ocean shipping routes and on the Oshu-kaido highway, Sendai was a commercial center beginning in the early 1600s. Documented and well researched by Japanese scholars, the rise and transition of the Sendai tansu is a representative microcosm of changes associated with the Meiji Restoration.
The Sendai chest of pre-Meiji years was very simple in appearance. A vertical locking bar (bo) usually extended over two drawers. Individually locking drawers, if present, had flat single-action locks, usually without an engraved design motif. Both the body and face woods were soft cryptomeria and paulownia respectively, finished with either a persimmon stain or an oil-thinned lacquer. Warabite-style iron drawer pulls with plain horizontal back plates are common in the oldest pieces.
In early Meiji, a second type of Sendai chest emerged, intended to appeal visually to prospering merchants and land-owning farmers now liberated from their harvest obligation to the samurai class. Though the proportions did not change, the paulownia face wood without obvious grain was superceded by beautifully grained zelkova or chestnut. The hardware remained flat but with somewhat more cutting and carving, especially for the single-action lock plates reaching across the top drawer which for the first time acquired the horizontal motif now frequently associated with tansu from the Sendai area.
While popularity of the second style continued to grow, especially with land farmers, a new form was seen that for the first time eliminated the vertical locking bar in favor of individually locking drawers in addition to a door hinged on the right side. Though cryptomeria continued to be used for the body, zelkova for the face wood with a kijiro lacquer finish was increasingly preferred. An embossing technique, known as uchidashi, was employed for the first time on the cut, chased, and engraved lock plates. Even though this tansu displayed considerable innovation, few were produced, indicating that it might have been intended for a limited number of sophisticated customers among the rich families.
With the end of the Meiji era, the individualist position of tansu makers as neighbourhood craftsmen with a limited clientele gave way to a broad distribution system for both raw materials and finished products. The introduction of systems for pre-cutting wood and mass-molding hardware was good for busines. Although it was the result of modern production techniques for a nationwide market, it was still well built and carefully hand-finished.
Single-action lock plates reaching across the top drawer which is associated with tansu from the Sendai area.