Sendai Chests

Daruma Magazine #18, Spring 1998

Text by Takeguchi Momoko and Alistair Seton
Photographs courtesy of John Adair of Kurofune Antiques, Tokyo


In Westerners' homes in Japan, you see furniture no longer found in the small houses and apartments most Japanese live in today. Old clothing chests with elaborate metal fittings are a typical example. Foreign visitors to Japan who become interested in them keep this useful souvenir of Japan after returning home and can use the strongly-built chests their whole life, and their grandchildren can too!

Many antique galleries deal in chests, proving their popularity; Daruma has received lots of requests to feature them, so in this issue we focus on the Sendai chests which are of special interest to you, the reader.

Genesis of chests

The recorded history of chests is relatively short, though one cannot help thinking that a lot must have gone unrecorded since the genesis of the chest kept in the Shôsôin repository for the last 12 centuries.

According to Nihon-shi Shôhyakka-Kagu (Furniture in the History of Japanese Goods) written by Koizumi Kazuko and published by Kondo Shuppan-sha in 1980, the oldest record of clothing chests was a description of the natural features of Osaka in 1679. It says that there was a shop in Shinsaibashi which sells chests.

This proves that clothing chests were available by then, They became widespread among the general public from the Shôtoku era (1711- 16) on.

Why is it not very long since chests first appeared? Ms Koizumi says that there are two reasons. One concerns the dothes needing storage.

1. Ordinary people did not have enough clothes to need drawers before then. At that time it was not unusual to have absolutely no spare clothes.

The ruling class had lots of clothes, but their homes were spacious; they had storehouses and servants, so nagamochi (large rectangular chests) and hitsu (big boxes) were sufficient to store their clothes and other belongings. These are still available and turn up occasionally but are large and a tad impractical for ordinary apartment dwellers.

During the Edo era (1603 - 1867), every daimôo (feudal lord) tried to better the lot of his clan, so the productive capacity of the fiefs expanded rapidly. The development of commerce and industry improved ordinary people's lives: the number of kimono shops increased markedly, so people must have been buying more clothes. A landmark was the opening in 1673 of Echigo-ya (the forerunner of Mitsukoshi Department Store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo).

People gradually came to need chests of drawers because their houses were small. They had to take out and put away their clothes every day, yet in the early 17th century there was no chest available in which to store them.

2. The other reason concerned materials and production. A good supply of wooden planks is needed to make chests of drawers. Producers had to be able to obtain easily and at a low price standardized timber of uniform thickness and size to make a chest,

An expanded distribution system and the development of large and improved ripsaws for timber made this possible. The number of lumber dealers increased in the early Edo era as well as shops which sold chests by processing planks obtained from them. From the mid-Edo era on, chests became widespread among ordinary people.

Chests in the Edo era

There are many kinds of tansu for various purposes; examples are: clothing chests (ishô-dansu),

ship's or sea chests (funa-dansu), book-keeping or merchants' chests (chô-dansu or chôba-dansu),

kitchen chests (mizuya),

sword chests (katana-dansu),

medicine chests (kusuri-dansu)

tea chests (cha-dansu) &

wheeled chests (kuruma dansu).

Kitano Fumio of Gomoku-dô is an antique dealer in Otsu, on Lake Biwa. In an article in Rokushô no. 17 published by Maria Shobô in 1995, he says that sea chests often date from the Edo period, i.e. they were made before 1868. These chests are said to have been used on Kitamae-bune, inshore cargo boats sailing from Tôhoku and Hokuriku to Tsuruga and Obama (on the north Kyoto coast) and later round western Honshû via the Japan Sea to Osaka and Hyôgo, carrying products from north-western Japan in the 15th through 19th centuries.

He notes that book-keeping and shôhin (goods) chests which were used at merchants' houses in Kansai also often dated from the Edo period.

Especially many chests with Edo dates remain in Osaka and Kyoto. Back then Osaka was called Tenka 110 Daidokoro (the kitchen of the realm) and was a great distribution point for products from various clan areas and merchants, while artisans tended to gather in Kyoto which boasted of its court culture.

Conversely when Mr Kitano bought clothing chests produced in Sendai, Yamagata, Nihonmatsu, Yonezawa and Fukushima (i.e. in Tôhoku, or north-eastern Japan), he noticed that few have Edo dates but many chests bear mid-Meiji dates.

In order to learn the reason for this disparity, let us tell you what Sendai was like in that period.

The Sendai clan

In the Edo era, the Sendai area (modern Miyagi Prefecture) was the fief of the proud Date family who were assessed as having an income of an enormous 620,000 bushels (koku) of rice.

Kaidô 0 Yuku (Travelling the Old Highways) no. 26-Sendai was written by the late well-known author Shiba Ryôtarô and published by Asahi Shimbun in 1990. In the book Mr Shiba calls the clan office "an enormous rice dealer". Thanks to the fertile granary of the Sendai plain, people could eat their fill and still have more. It is said that the clan actually harvested over a million bushels a year.

In addition, the clan was within easy reach of Edo. In the mid-Edo era, around 300 thousand bushels of rice were sent to Edo every year. The big clan's heavy reliance on the staple crop simplified its economic action, he adds.

While daimyô in western Japan applied their energies during the late Edo period to developing industry and producing various kinds of articles unique to their clan fiefs, the Sendai clan stuck to rice and failed to promote other industries, as the backbone of the Sendai clan had always been its fertile land.


fig. 1 On'na-dansu (bridal clothes chest with two top drawers, not the traditional single drawer), keyaki front, mid Meiji era


fig. 2 Meoto dansu (husband and wife chest). This handsome chest consists of two sections and lines up side-by-side. Keyaki front, mid Meiji era 

Fig. 3 Iwayadô tansu (Iwate Prefecture), chestnut, late Edo era

The story carries a moral. If the local economy had had other lucrative sectors, people's thinking would have become diverse and other tradeable items would have developed.

There were a few good products in Sendai, but they were not distributed elsewhere. For example, the clan was good at making big articles of cast metal like iron lanterns for temples and shrines. But they were too heavy to transport to other provinces, so Sendai artisans travelled to other fiefs and cast them on the spot.

Sendai-hira (a kind of silk doth solely for divided skirts called hakama) is known even today, but was only used for the Date family and as gifts to Shôgun, or other nobles so its production did not become a commercial enterprise.

Interestingly enough Mr Murakami, a Sendai City official, compares the Sendai and Kaga clans in that book. The Kaga were a big clan, with an official assessment of 1 million bushels, similar to Sendai. The Kaga clan were based in Kanazawa and left well-known artistic handicrafts like Wajima lacquer and Kutani ceramics; today the city can announce the future course of its development with ease, but ancient Sendai handed nothing down to the modern city.

Furthermore, while the feudal system of the Edo period nominally encouraged rice cropping by farmers, it adopted a monetary economy suited to other transactions. When large-scale commerce was firmly established from the mid Edo era on, merchants enjoyed prosperity. There was a contradiction between the rice economy of the daimyô and peasants, and the world of commerce where cash was king. The intrusion of capitalism began to destroy the rice economy.

But the Sendai clan prohibited people from using typical coins of the era called Kan'ei Tsûhô and just cast coins of the smallest value while circulating clan notes. This made big business deals topsy-turvy and tended to raise prices. In 1787 the clan stopped minting bad money, but did not begin to make 'good' money.

Making things worse, the official price of rice tended to go down every year as the Tokugawa government imposed merciless financial burdens on the big clan. In addition, famines sometimes visited farmers in the country, causing misfortune among the poor.

Wondering why he saw few Edo dates on clothing chests from Tôhoku, Mr Kitano asked a local person for an explanation. He answered in a heavy brogue: "in those days Tôhoku was unimaginably poor, so we had no kimono to put in chests. At a time when we owned nothing but the clothes on our backs, who needed storage chests?"


When we enquired about the history of Sendai chests, the Miyagi Prefectural Products Promotion Association stated that the profession of sashimono-shi (cabinet-maker or joiner) did not exist in the Edo era, so builders also made furniture like desks, boxes and chests, etc.

fig. 4 Chôba-dansu (book-keeping chest), keyaki front,
mid-late Meiji era

The clan patronized 250 builders who worked under five master carpenters. While they engaged in the construction of castle, temples, shrines and clansmen's houses, they also made furniture. When the clan's carpenters were busy, it employed non-affiliated carpenters on a temporary basis to handle extra work. Both professions made chests, desks, hibachi and shelving, etc.

It 'is said that the later standard, four shaku-wide chests (1 shaku is about a foot or 30 cm.) were the brainchild of Umemura Hikozaemon, a master carpenter who was active in the reign of Date Masamune (1567 - 1636). He placed one in the grand hall of Aoba Castle. It seems to have impressed visitors and was the original Sendai dansu.

As the chests were for samurai residences, the upper drawer was made wide enough to put in the long swords they wore and treasured. Later merchants copied the life-style of their feudal lord and his retainers, and admired the chests so much that they put Sendai chests at the top of the list for wedding trousseaux.

Though few have Edo dates, it is likely that Sendai chests gradually became more popular among the local ruling class, its retainers and more important merchants during the 18th and early 19th centuries. It is also quite possible that there was no regional custom of dating them. To imagine that the Sendai chest suddenly took off commercially in c.1870 without any strong pre-existing tradition strains belief.

Style and features

fig. 5 Small Iwayadô-influenced Sendai chest for accessories, keyaki front mid-late Meiji era

An N.H.K television program entitled Kodawari Hakubutsukan (Museums that stick to one field of art or antiques), featured

Sendai Tansu Denshô-kan which exhibits traditional chests from Sendai City (address: Sendai 984-0061, Wakabayashi-ku, Minami Kaji-cho 143, tel: 022-222-7083, fax: 022-222-1023).

Momma Tansu Shop has been in business some 120 years.

Momma Tokuki collected 50 old and new Sendai chests and opened the Museum in 1995. Here are the features of hand-made Sendai chests, as related by him, with many additional observations from the personal experience of John Adair and others.

Sendai chests are characterised by elaborate beaten metal fittings and beautiful lacquering on thick and beautifully grained wood, often keyaki (zelkova or Oriental elm).

For clarity's sake, we can list the main individual features as: 

1. strong-looking metal fittings which spread out from the central lock plate
2. lacquering which makes the underlying grain of the wood stand out most beautifully
3. beautifully grained keyaki and occasionally chestnut
4. chests are not usually chest-on-chest (they consist of one piece only) but may have a base
5. many, but not all, have a wooden locking bô or shimbari which protects the middle, lockless drawers against burglars.


The lacquerwork is one of the main features of a Sendai chest; this attracts different theories and the mention of various techniques. A simple way of explaining the lacquer may be to contrast Sendai with some chests from the Shônai area round Tsuruoka, on the Japan Sea coast side.

fig. 6 Small tansu produced in lwadayama, keyaki front, 
mid-late Meiji era

In one process often used there, the wood is not chosen for its lovely grain or to show it off (they do not use keyaki): the plank on a chest there acts more like the canvas of a painting. When work is finished on lacquering it, the grain of the wood is no longer really visible-just as we do not look for the pattern on a finished canvas.

Craftsmen apply an undercoat made of a thinned lacquer and tonoko (polishing powder) which gives the plank a smooth skin, fills up any microscopic holes in the wood so lacquer cannot be absorbed and provides a glass-like surface on which to lacquer. The lacquerer covers the grain in working his magic but the Tsuruoka chest still attracts us due to the strong repoussé ironwork and the shape of the tansu with its tall, slightly angular shape, often enhanced by the locking bar covering the drawers.

In Sendai the craftsmen wanted the viewer to see the beauty of the grain and used the tamenuri technique (tameru means to pile up) over attractive keyaki or chestnut. The wood is not sealed as above, so lacquer seeps into the wood, particularly into the soft, absorbent 'valleys' between the hard grain lines. Each coat is left on till nearly dry and the excess wiped off.

fig. 7 Kuruma-dansu (wheeled chest), keyaki front, early-mid Meiji era

The hard grain 'hills' absorb lacquer in the first applications but soon become sated. To prevent lacquer piling up on the hard lines, the lacquerer wipes off that area but allows the lacquer layers to continue accumulating in the 'valleys' till they reach the height of the grain 'hills'. The lacquerer creates a thick lake of lacquer on the valleys which gives the chests their luminous visual quality.

John Adair quotes an observer as comparing the hard grain and intervening softer wood to "steel balls embedded in sponge".

Using a brush and spatula might leave unsightly areas so a technique called fuki-urushi ('wiping lacquer on and off) was used on the tamenuri in Sendai, according to Adair.

Kijiro-nuri describes the technique of choice for modern chests but Adair says that this approach is associated with the lacquering done of old at Yonezawa.


If we compare the shape of the metal fittings, Sendai does not use the round or squarish lock plates common elsewhere in north-east Japan. Sendai's are sinuous, with no straight lines, and seem to spread effortlessly outwards from the central plate; the metal has an attractive roundedness and is usually lacquered an agreeable black

The extravagant metal fittings (kanagu) we associate with Sendai chests appeared from the last days of the Tokugawa government to the mid or late Meiji years, i.e. 1860 - 1910. Out of work after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the prohibition of sword-carrying in 1876, the famous swordsmiths of Sendai turned their skills to the new trade.

Early on, flat iron plates were used as they were, and the design of the fittings was simple. By mid-Meiji, artisans beat the plates out from the reverse side to make the fittings look more attractive.

From the late Meiji to early Taishô eras (1910 - 20), owning opulent chests became popular among merchants, and artisans used their skill to make complicated and soft curved lines. The designs of the metalwork displayed great variety; typical pattems are:

ryûko (dragons and tigers),

tsuru-kame (cranes and turtles),

hô-ô (Oriental phoenixes),

shôchikubai (the pine, bamboo and plum) and

karakusa (arabesques).

These designs were repeated on the second, third and fourth drawers, in an echoic vein and on a reduced scale. Naturally the small 'safe' too had echoes or a smaller copy.

A chest owned by Ron and Mary Ellen Shapiro of Ashiya has an interesting composition. The large lock plate on the top drawer has three elements. On the left is an ordinary folding fan. In the centre is an obviously European silk top hat and on the right is a Western style umbrella. The three forms are linked together seamlessly and it was only on closer examination that the two atypical shapes were identified.

The chest itself has no particular claim to excellence, judging from the wood or condition, so the unusualness of the motifs may be related to the intellectual curiosity of the metal fitting maker, rather than to a special order by a merchant with a good knowledge of recent artistic trends. Still Sendai is a long way from Tokyo, so it must be counted as a find, though Adair who contributed a lot of the technical knowledge for this article has seen one or two other examples.

We may certainly guess that this chest was made in the late 19th century when the fad for Western technological inventions infiltrated artistic circles in the movement called Bunmei Kaika, ('Revolution in Civilisation'); its proponents loved to portray novelties like trains, telegraph poles, paddle steamers and street lamps on their dishes, textiles and woodblock prints.

A chest at one author's house has signed metal fittings.
Like most chests from other parts of Tôhoku in the Meiji era, Sendai chests were typically furnished with small lockable drawers behind a door (i.e. like a safe) usually on the bottom right of a chest, as well as with atari-byo (contact rivets) for taking the knocks when metal handles were let go, thus protecting the surrounding wood from damage. The fact that these pieces of iron are somewhat worn away in many cases proves their utility.

All outside corners and indeed the corners of each drawer are protected by metal. This is one of the outstanding characteristics of almost all Japanese chests, so it is not particular to Sendai. One may speculate that this derives from the custom of ordering the chests when a marriage was arranged and then delivering them to the couple's new house swung on a pole slung through the carrying handles. The porters may have had far to go and been less than careful as they stumbled along, so all-round protection was advisable.

Materials, dimensions & colours

With chestnut, keyaki is the wood of choice for cabinetmaking in Japan (and Korea, where it is called Oriental elm). It has a grain which can look a thousand different ways depending on the way it is cut and the part of the tree it is taken from. Sendai drawer fronts usually have thick, long-cut planks with widely spaced but sinuous grain. The best chests use pieces from the same tree; a thick piece was chosen and then expertly sawn in half so that the two planks had exactly matching grain.

Burl was not so common till later when choicer cuts were available and people had more money. Burl or burr is termed tamamoku. Other attractive cuts are namimoku (wave pattern) and cat's eye (extremely rare, with black striation like a feline eye).

The sides and back of Sendai chests are rather plain, perhaps just stained maroon though the back is usually left pristine with the occasional inscription of a town/village, client, cabinet-maker and date. Back and sides are made of plain wood like pine or more usually cedar. In the old days hinoki (Japanese cypress, an attractive hardwood with straight grain) was never used for the frame, as it does not grow in the North.

Mr Momma says that nowadays momi (fir) is often used for the insides of drawers because the wood is white, but kiri (paulownia) and sugi (Japanese cedar) are also common. Cedar with its attractive combination of pale pink and a creamy colour was the automatic first choice, though paulownia was occasionally used.

fig. 8 Clothing chest, keyaki front, early-mid Meiji era. Chest with dragon and tiger metal fittings usually added to chests with a  (bar), but not this chest.

fig. 9 All keyaki bô-dansu (chest with locking bar), Tempo era (1830-44)

The strongly-built chests were put into the lower part of closets or hanging cupboards, so their sides and backboards were simple and the chests were locally known as shikomi tansu (fitted chests); others prefer the term hamekomi. The hidden place they occupied explains why little energy was expended on beautifying the sides and top (called the ten by some cabinetmakers).

In addition, they were sometimes divided into two parts: a main body and a stand or base called a daiwa. Users could adjust the height of the chests by inserting or removing the base stand. Even if originally present, these stands are often missing nowadays. Adair believes, unlike Momma, that this stand was rare, so doubts it was a common way of adjusting height within the closet.

Sendai chests were about 4 shaku (4 feet or 120 cm.) wide and 1.5 - 2 shaku (45 - 60 cm.) deep. Height varied between 3 and 4 feet (90 - 120 cm). You will notice that most Sendai chests are not very deep, due to the layout of the city itself.

Machiya (tradesmen's houses) in the Date clan capital had a frontage of 6 ken (1 ken =; 6 shaku or some 1.818 m.) and a depth of 25 ken. Shallow chests were made in order to fit the houses.

In this connection John of Kurofune Antiques clarifies that there was a big variation in the Sendai chests made in the north and south of the same city, so it is hard to make any general statements which cannot immediately be contradicted with examples from a slightly different area.

More especially in the countryside further north, the houses were bigger so toward Furukawa, Narugo and Iwadayama the chests get as deep as 90 cm. as there were no longer space constraints.

Unfortunately those usually have to be cut down as they do not fit our homes nowadays. It makes one wonder if we are not back in a social press like that of feudal times if we have to think carefully about the size of our furniture before buying, to fit the cramped housing most cities offer!

If you compare Sendai chests with those from Nihonmatsu or Yonezawa, they have a lower, wider look, as few are chest-on-chest. Their shape is more elegant perhaps, but does not offer the possibility of separating top and bottom to make 'his' and 'hers', or place them separately side by side.

The colour of the front drawers most people associate with Sendai is a rich maroon or wine red but a honey gold is also common, and particularly treasured by some. Though many of our photos are red, the colours run the gamut of reds, browns and golds.

There is not only one Sendai colour, as Rosy Clarke implies in her Japanese Antique Furniture(Weatherhill, 1983). Here we may add that English readers are blessed. The Heineken's Tansu: Traditional Japanese Cabinetry and Koizumi Kazuko's Traditional Japanese Furniture are both excellent.

Moreover there will have been a considerable change in the colour since it was first applied, due to the effect of light and the influence of the component chemicals themselves. This means that if your chest has scratches and you want your repairman to add some lacquer to match the rest, you are asking something hard or impossible, so be sympathetic with his efforts.

Sendai chests this century

fig. 10 Medium-sized chest, keyaki front, late Meiji era

The fashion for "Sendai tansu" reached a peak at the turn of the century when many were ordered in from the surrounding prefectures to meet the demand, which may account for the variety of some details,

From the late Taishô to the early Shôwa eras (the 19205’s - 1930s), elaborate, rococo metal fittings dropped away with the spread of chests among ordinary people, and two-layered and bigger chests appeared. Mass-produced metal fittings were brought from Sanjô in Niigata Pref etc. and modem furniture appeared on the market

Public taste has changed and hand-made Sendai chests have been swallowed up by waves of mechanization: the industry is at a low ebb. Contemporary Sendai chests are occasionally exhibited at department stores nationwide. In Sendai, Momma Tansu Shop, Watanabe Furniture Shop and Kumanodô are the main dealers.

Making a Sendai chest today

This is how a good Sendai chest is produced today.

Artisans use beautifully-grained keyaki for the front, and kiri (paulownia) for the insides of drawers. To stop the wood buckling or twisting over the decades, timber should be seasoned for10 years or more.

fig. 11 On'na dansu, a single plank of keyaki is used for the entire front, mid Meiji era
Chests of the highest grade are made of fossil wood (umore-gi). Wood which was buried in the ground for 100 years or more becomes close-grained and brings out the original fine patterns due to pressure from the soil.

Artisans varnish the keyaki surface of chests with lacquer in order to set off its beautiful grain, and then polish the surface in kijiro-nuri lacquer, so the base wood texture is preserved on the surface and the amber colour of the lacquer comes out as it is. (The importance of this technique is underlined by the different approach in other types where the grain is obscured, as mentioned).

They dry the lacquer and whittle away unevenness on the surface with charcoal. They repeat the process 20 times and apply even layers of lacquer. For finishing, artisans polish the surface with tsuno-ko powder which is made of burnt deer's horn: this gives a deep lustre to the surface.

During the long lacquering process, the metal fittings are readied. Yaegashi Eikichi is the only fourth generation artisan dedicated to making metal fittings for Sendai chests today. He carves patterns on an iron plate with various kinds of tagane (cold chisels or gravers), referring to sketches he has drawn. He has as many as 1300 chisels which he made himself.

fig. 12 On'na dansu, keyaki front, 
late Meiji era
After carving patterns, he embosses them from the reverse side of the 1 mm. - 2 mm. thick lion plates. He beats out the plates as thin as he can, but not so their fronts warp. About 130 metal fittings are used on one chest and it takes him a month to make them all. Yaegashi is careful to cover the metal fittings with lacquer, so their colour will last.

When put together, the cabinetry, lacquering and metal fittings all become one and a Sendai chest today is a magnificent traditional handicraft which deserves to be admired by the discerning and collected for its intrinsic beauty and workmanship.

We hope that readers will have learnt a little from this article and continue Westerners' long-lasting love affair with the striking chests of Sendai.

The authors publish and edit Daruma Magazine, living in Kunsai.




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