Japan is fortunate to still have an early example of storage cabinetry craftsmanship preserved in the Shoso-in, an imperial storehouse within the grounds of Todaiji temple in Nara. The cabinet, called a Zushi, dates from the reign of Emperor Temmu in 673 AD. Though Chinese Tang dynasty inspired and stationary in function, the proportion and joinery of this ancient artifact presage the coming of Tansu in the 17th century.
Tansu, as a word, was first recorded in the Genroku era of the Edo period (1688-1704). The two characters, TAN and SU, appear to have initially represented objects with separate functions: the storage of food and the carrying of firewood. Since the radical for bamboo appears in each of these characters, it may be conjectured that wood was not as yet used.
History offers a documented point in time when Tansu were observed in active use as mobile cabinetry. On March 2nd, 1657, in the third year of the Meireki era of Edo, a fire broke out at the Honmyoji temple in the Hongo district of Edo after many rainless months. Swept on by high winds, flames took three days to consume much of the capital, killing 107,000 people. At the time of the conflagration, a trade mission from the Dutch east india company on Dejima island in Nagasaki harbor had just concluded an agreement with the Shogunate and were in Edo awaiting permission to return. Zacharias Wagenaer, head of the mission, recorded in careful detail his observation of the panic ensuing from the fire. A passage from his diary, translated from the dutch, is especially relevant.
"With our realization of the gravity of the situation, our senior Japanese bodyguard, with a long staff in hand, led us into the street with instructions to stay together at all costs. This was indeed almost impossible because of the crowds of panic-stricken refugees, many trying to carry their belongings in big chests on four wheels. Since nobody wished to be last, they had so congested the gateways and crossings that often hundreds of thus burdened citizens were waiting just to pass through.. Those who were empty-handed climbed over the chests, finding safe escape. We did likewise, as well as climbing over roofs, in our race to outrun the insatiable flames that caught those wretched people who could not pass through with their possessions. God save their souls!"
The "big chests on four wheels" referred to in the diary were what is now known as Nagamochi Kuruma, the earliest documented category of Tansu. Further, in 1661, an historical commentary with woodblock prints , known as the Musashi Abumi was published, in which the chests observed by Wagenaer are conspicuous.
Other then ship chests used on the Kitamae route, Tansu from the Edo period reflect the Shogun’s desire to control his subjects. The merchant class, though more prosperous then any other, was barely tolerated by the Samurai. Considered greedy, opportunistic and lacking in moral worth, merchants were frequently harassed with restrictions as to their hair style, what style Tansu they could own, appropriate fabrics for kimono . Even the size of their children’s dolls was constrained. Not wishing to risk incurring the displeasure of the Shogunate, all classes of the feudal society were circumspect in personal matters.
The restoration of imperial authority in 1868 ended a system of enforced adherence to what had become an imposed class structure. The primary concern of the new Meiji government was to bring Japan into the modern industrial world. The craftsman class was essentially left untouched by this modernization except that craftsmen, including the makers of Tansu, could now anticipate a wider range of customers.
From 1868 until 1923, Tansu designs and the production of individual, traditionally-trained, craftsmen, proliferated. On September 1st, 1923, a massive earthquake and ensuing fire obliterated much of Tokyo and Yokohama, taking more then 130,000 lives. As with the Meireki fire of 1657, reconstruction was indirectly stimulating to the economy as well as an opportunity for some. Because the possessions of great numbers of people as well as the stock and productive capacities of local Tansu craftsmen had been destroyed, large scale Tansu makers in the unaffected Kansai area of the country stepped in to fill the need with “mass produced” chests using labor specialization to achieve economies of scale and maximized production, thus inadvertently nudging Tansu making from craft to manufacture.