Kishu traditional chest Photo:Wakayama Prefecture

Kishu traditional chest Kishu tansu

Beautiful wood grain patterns
Perfect for storing clothes


What is Kishu traditional chest ?

Kishu Tansu are masterpieces of traditional woodwork made in an area around Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture. Kishu Tansu are so called because the manufacturing technique was established in Kishu, now the current day Wakayama Prefecture. As high-quality tansu with both beautiful ornamentation and durability, Kishu Tansu are highly-rated storage furniture.
Kishu Tansu are characterized by the use of paulownia wood, ideal for storage furniture, and its delicate construction and assembly methods passed down from olden times. Paulownia is a soft wood with a beautiful pale yellow color and attractive wood grain, comfortably at home in both Japanese- and Western-style rooms, and known for creating an elegant and serene atmosphere. Paulownia is a very stable wood with little distortion or warping, making it possible to use Kishu Tansu for a long period of time. Paulownia has the nature of absorbing moisture in humid weather and releasing moisture when the air is dry; it also has low thermal conductivity. These properties make paulownia ideal for storing clothes which are sensitive to changes in moisture and temperature.


The origin of Kishu Tansu is unclear, but it is sometime before the 1840s. According to the Nanki Tokugawa shi describing the history of the Kishu Tokugawa family, in the late Edo Period in 1846, the Wakayama Castle tower was hit by lightning and many tools were burnt in the ensuing fire. When the castle tower was rebuilt in 1850, records show that fire-damaged furniture, such as nagamochi (large oblong chests), were repaired; it is reasonable to infer manufacturing techniques of such items already existed in the area at that time and presumably earlier.
Records relating to the making of Tansu in the same decade have also been found in several town houses in Wakayama Prefecture, clarifying that Tansu were used as bridal dowries, even in common families and not just samurai families. Tansu with characteristic fittings believed to be manufactured in the Edo Period have been found in many merchant’s houses. It can be assumed from these facts that the manufacturing techniques of Tansu had already been established in the late Edo Period around the area of the current Wakayama City. When the transportation network was improved in the Meiji Period, it became possible to meet demand from the Osaka region in addition to that of the local area, which led to a rapid increase in production.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Drying and Sawing The first stage is to select high-quality paulownia wood; logs from 30 to 60 years of age are classified as masamezai (quarter-sawn timber), and other logs are classified as itamezai (plain-sawn timber). Masamezai have close annual rings, and little warpage. Itamezai are a little inferior to masamezai in quality, and have annual rings which look like a mountain. The selected wood needs to be dried naturally from six months to two years. The drying removes aku (substances that cause discoloration) and enhances the beauty of the wood grain.
  2. 2. Making Boards When the wood is well seasoned boards are accurately cut to size. The boards used for the doors and the front surface of the drawers in particular need to be finished beautifully and have attractive grain markings. Masameita (straight-grained wood) with beautiful wood grain lines at intervals of 2 to 3 cm are selected, and cut after a careful inspection for any damage, knots, or warping. The cut boards are coated with glue, firmly fixed and stuck to each other by applying strong pressure to make one single board. The surface of the board is planed smooth to complete the process.
  3. 3. Assembly First, the body of the chest is assembled, including the top board, the bottom board, shelf boards, and side boards. The ends of the boards to be joined vertically are cut into a concavo-convex shapes. The cut portions are called kumitehozo (finger joints), which are characterized by several traditional forms of joint. They include, for example, arigata kumitehozo (dovetail joints), in which the sections to be joined look like a dove’s tail, and tsutsumi arigata kumitehozo (lap dovetail joints), in which the joined sections cannot be seen from one side. The type of joint chosen depends upon its purpose and location in the chest.
    The body is first temporarily assembled to make fine adjustments, and is then assembled and glued. When the back board is fitted, wooden nails are quickly driven into the boards before the glue dries. The body is then wiped with a damp cloth, so as to make the nails attach firmly to the boards and to erase any trace of nailing. After the glue is well dried, the body is planed to finish. Wooden nails are used instead of normal iron nails so as to avoid rust.
  4. 4. Finishing Drawers are made after the body has been completed. First, kumitehozo is hit and compressed in a process called Kigoroshi. Kigoroshi makes it easy to combine the joints, and allow gaps to be closed by the restoring force of the wood. Like the body, wooden nails are driven into the drawers, which are wiped with a damp cloth and dried, and then planed to finish. The bon (kimono tray) for storing kimonos are made by holding the frame with hemp strings, and fitting the bottom board into the frame and driving wooden nails into the board. After the bon is wiped with a damp cloth and dried, the outer side of the bon is planed into a rounded shape to complete.
    The surface of the assembled body is polished with an uzukuri, a small brush made from karukaya grass roots. Polishing beautifully brings out the wood grain. After polishing, polishing powder made of finely ground stone powder is mixed with yashabusha seeds (Japanese green alder) and boiled in water. The body is recoated with the mixture to further bring out the wood grain. After the whole body is waxed, the doors and drawers are fitted, and the fittings are finally attached to complete the Kishu Tansu.

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