Chests of Drawers Filled with Tradition

Tansu Maker Tokuichi Imaeda
(Photos by Masatsugu Yokoyama)
In times past, Japanese families would plant a paulownia tree in the yard at the birth of a daughter, to be cut down for wood to make a tansu (chest of drawers) for her use after marriage. In the heyday of this custom, a plain wood tansu was the most prized piece in a bride's trousseau. Boxes made of paulownia were also traditionally used to store a baby's umbilical cord. This wood has long held a treasured place in Japan's social and familial contexts.

Paulownia trees are native to Asia, but it is only in Japan that they have come to be used for making home furnishings. The wood, which is both moisture-repellent and breathable, is the perfect material to protect clothing in Japan, with its high temperatures and humidity.

But the list of paulownia's attributes does not end there. "Paulownia is highly flame-resistant--if doused in water, furniture made from it will even survive a fire even if the house doesn't. It's also easy to work with, being light and resistant to warping. And the grain of the wood has a warmth and luster that are hard to describe. It's the perfect wood for furniture". This praise for the material comes from Tokuichi Imaeda, a veteran craftsman who has created countless paulownia works known as Nagoya tansu since founding Imaeda Furnishings in 1935 in the town of Miyoshi.

Nagoya tansu, officially designated as a traditional craft by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, have a history nearly four centuries deep. They are said to have been made first by the artisans who remained in the castle town of Nagoya after helping construct the keep in the early 1610s. The development of their art was also spurred by the availability of paulownia from the nearby Hida region in modern-day Gifu Prefecture.

There are now seven recognized centers of paulownia tansu production in Japan. It is the luxurious quality of Nagoya tansu, however, that sets them apart from the versions crafted elsewhere. As Imaeda explains, "A tansu can be fancied up with lacquer finish or cloisonné on the metalwork, but there's a different splendor that can be achieved by using wood from a thick, old paulownia, showing off the tree rings along the length of the grain to full effect. These days you see a lot of tansu where even high quality, long lumber is cut across the grain into smaller pieces, to lower the cost of the finished product. But I'm a firm believer in striving for the highest quality possible, so I try to bring out as much of the natural beauty of the full-length grain as possible."

The most important step in the crafting of a tansu is the selection of the wood. This involves going through the paulownia lumber and deciding what piece will go where in the finished tansu. While most of the work at Imaeda Furnishings is now handled by a crew of 16 under the direction of Yoshinori Imaeda, the third in line of the family trade, this step is not one that 85-year-old Tokuichi will leave up to anyone else.

Tokuichi's gentle countenance grows hard as he looks over the lumber. He casts his piercing gaze on the material, skillfully wielding chalk and a long straightedge to mark the dimensions of the pieces to be cut, avoiding knots and blemishes as he goes. Paulownia is known for its long branches, which make the task of wood selection a difficult one. It is a job only made possible by long years of experience.

The most difficult aspect of creating tansu is ensuring that the pieces' corners come to perfect right angles--a fundamental feature of the furniture. The elder Imaeda is unforgiving of any imperfection in measurement, be it off by no more than the thickness of a sheet of paper. The making of any tansu demands a certain degree of exactitude, but Imaeda takes this to a higher level. His demanding nature makes itself felt in every aspect of tansu construction; indeed, his insistency underscores the true craftsman in him. With its rigorous production standards, Imaeda Furnishings produces only about 500 paulownia tansu each year.

At the age of 13, Tokuichi went as an apprentice to Tokyo and Yokohama, learning to make everything from geta (wooden clogs) to bird houses. After returning to Nagoya he turned his woodworking skills to making tansu for his family and acquaintances, setting himself on the path he has followed to this day. Rather than learn the craft of tansu-making from a teacher, he "stole" the needed techniques from others. Many of his early works were failures, and he would fight at times with unhappy customers. But he ascribes the improvement in his skills to the evaluations from just those customers.

Imaeda looks back happily on his life as a tansu maker. "It's said that a paulownia tansu should last a family through three generations. Well, some of my customers have actually used their Imaeda tansu for that long. And what could be happier for a craftsman than that?"