In modern useage, Tansu is the popular word most commonly associated with traditional mobile storage cabinetry indigenous to Japan.
Consistent with Japan’s minimalist aesthetic, the traditional house appeared empty. There were no stationary tables, chairs or set furniture pieces occupying living area floor space. With only a few exceptions, Tansu were not visible in the home except at certain times related to specific situations.
Because Tansu were not intended to be stationary, comparisons cannot easily be made with the great decorative furniture traditions of Europe and China. As mobile cabinetry of convenience, Tansu were used by individuals to keep personal possessions and clothing outside of the season for which they were required, by merchants to store records, inventory or other valuables, and by families for ready access to objects of daily use. Tansu were kept in storehouses usually adjacent to homes and businesses, in house storage rooms, on the raised business area of shops and on some coastal ships for the personal use of the owner or captain. Tansu as a distinct category can be defined as flexibly jointed cabinetry, originally of Japanese origin, designed to be mobile through the use of attached wheels, hardware for carrying or protruding horizontal upper rails for lifting.
Though Tansu were intended to be functionally mobile and adjunctive to house architecture in Japan until the early 1920s, they have gradually come to be appreciated internationally as yet another category of decorative furniture. To the discerning eye, educated through exposure to furniture, Tansu joinery might appear woefully inappropriate in being bereft of dovetails and other "rigid" joints. Not unlike the traditional japanese house, designed to flex when exposed to the exigencies of nature’s wrath, Tansu pegged half lap joints were intended to flex when stressed rather then burst. The strategic placement of iron platting in a wide variety of configurations, further helped to insure structural integrity.
With few exceptions, Tansu craftsmen used only Japanese woods. Unlike China which had largely exploited its forest resources by the 18th century, Japan protected its trees as sacred, consistent with its Shinto code. For exterior door and drawer material, Zelkova Elm and Chestnut were favored as hard woods. Paulownia, Cryptomeria and Hinoki Cypress as soft. For Tansu cases and for interiors, Cryptomeria and Paulownia were preferred. Veneers were shunned well into the 20th century.
Tansu finishes fall into two categories: Dry and lacquered. For a dry finish, clay or chalk powder was rubbed into the soft wood surface, then burnished with a reed whisk. For lacquer (Rhus Verniciflua), application could be for simply sealing the plain wood to enhance a natural visible grain or for the creation of a perfect opaque surface of great value.
Tansu designs can be differentiated into two classifications that mirror Japanese history: The Edo period (1603-1868) and the Meiji restoration of imperial authority. Because Edo was feudal in its socio economic structure, rules concerning ownership dominated all stratum of society from peasant to Samurai. Traveling was regulated and conspicuous consumption discouraged through sumptuary laws. Tansu from this time primarily reflect the class and occupation of the owner rather then any regionally inspired originality. With the coming of Meiji and Japan’s opening to western ideas and perspectives from 1868, the rigid class structure gradually disintegrated and distinctive regional characteristics could now flourish.