Sendai Chest | A wood-made magnificent traditional craft


Sendai Chest (Tansu)

Sendai Chest is crafted furniture produced by hand by artisans mainly in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture. Made mainly of zelkova wood, Sendai chest is a beautifully decorated with “mokujiro-nuri” (wood-ground lacquer) that makes the most of the grain of the wood and gorgeous iron decorations such as lion designs. Originally, these chests were used for storing sword sheaths, kimonos, etc., and their utilitarian value was emphasized. In 2015, the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry designated Sendai tansu as a “traditional craft” in recognition of the excellent traditional skills of its craftsmen.

This type of chest is often compared with Iwayado Chests from Iwate prefecture. Both are the same in that they are finished by hand using the advanced techniques of craftsmen, but while the metal fittings of “Sendai-dansu” have a delicate impression, those of “Iwayado-Tansu” are bold and dynamic in design, radiating a strong impact. Different from Kamo chest made of paulownia, these chests are the product from chestnut, cedar, or zelkova.

History of Sendai Tansu

Sendai tansu originated at the end of the Edo period. Since its birth, it has developed as a lifestyle culture in Sendai and the surrounding area of Miyagi Prefecture. Sendai tansu was a local industry in the Sendai domain (Date han) during the Edo period, and was used as a common household item by samurai families. The original type of chest was called a “yaro” type, which was designed to store sword sheaths in addition to kamishimo (formal dress) and haori (formal coat), the clothing of the time. The size was specified as 4 shaku (approx. 120 cm) wide and 3 shaku (90 cm) or 3 shaku 3 sun (100 cm) high. Later, the size and specifications of Sendai tansu changed with the development of technology and the lifestyle of the times.

Sendai Chest
Source: tetotetote

During the Meiji and Taisho periods, Sendai tansu gradually spread to the general public, and production reached its peak in the Meiji and mid Taisho periods. At that time, they were also exported to Europe and became popular overseas as an excellent traditional Japanese craft. During the war, production of Sendai tansu was temporarily halted due to a lack of materials and human resources. However, production resumed after the war, and the traditional techniques have continued uninterrupted to the present day.

Update occurred in Sendai Chest form

While carefully preserving traditions, new charms have also been introduced, and they are still very much in the spotlight today. In modern times, Sendai tansu became popular among the general public, and the decoration became more ornate. Sendai tansu also caught the attention of the German and American Occupation Forces and began to be exported overseas, and Sendai tansu flourished as a local industry.

 These days, not only chests of drawers, but also various other products are made using the technique and raw materials. Take, for example, picnic cutlery cases; a case large enough to hold plates, spoons, forks, etc., yet small enough to be carried in a basket. Although much smaller than a Sendai tansu, the cutlery case is a perfect example of the techniques and design of Sendai tansu production.

different version of Sendai chest
Cutlery case source: FIAT magazine CIAO!

The picnic cutlery case is made of zelkova wood on the outside of the box, just like the Sendai tansu. The inside is made of paulownia wood. These different uses of wood are based on the choice of materials in anticipation of how the manufactured product will be used. This is something that is normally taken for granted, but it is something that is hard to expect in today’s manufacturing, which is born from production efficiency and price competition. This is the embodiment of what manufacturing should be, standing on the side of the user.

3. Naruko Lacquerware

Naruko lacquerware is characterized by the technique of lacquering on hewn wood. The lacquerware is lacquered with a moist and beautiful finish, such as Kijiro-nuri, which brings out the grain of the wood, Fuki-urushi finish, and Ryu-bun-nuri, a unique sumi-nagashi technique. After the middle coating is applied, maki-e (gold-relief lacquer) decoration is sometimes applied. Naruko lacquerware is popular for its usability and durability as daily necessities.

Naruko Lacquerware
Source: Tohoku Bureau of Economy,Trade and Industry

Let us explain in detail one of the major characteristics of Naruko lacquerware, the lacquering process. Kijiro-nuri,” finished with transparent lacquer, brings out the beauty of the grain of the wood as it is used. The “Fuki-urushi finish,” in which lacquer with no added pigments is applied to the wood and wiped off repeatedly, leaving the color of the lacquer on the surface, is also used. There are also various types of lacquering, such as “Ryu-bun-nuri,” a technique unique to Naruko that creates a pattern that looks like flowing sumi ink, all of which give off a moist shine. Some of them are decorated with maki-e after the middle lacquering. These are gems of simple beauty that would not look out of place in daily life as everyday items.

The production process consists of four steps: wood-jig making, base making, lacquering, and decorating. In the process of making the wooden base, one of three types is produced: yakimono, kakimono, and kenkamono. In the base making process, lacquer is applied as a lacquer base, rust base, or astringent lacquer base. After that, the piece is lacquered in the middle and finished with hana-nuri (flower lacquering) or iro-nuri (colorful lacquering). In some cases, maki-e decoration is applied.

manufacturing process of Naruko lacquerware
Source: tetotetote


Historical Background

It is said to have originated nearly 400 years ago, during the Kan’ei period (1624-1643) in the early Edo period. Date Tadamasa Toshichika, the third lord of the Iwadeyama Domain, a branch of the Date clan of the Sendai domain, sent the lacquer painter Tamura Ubei and the maki-e lacquer painter Kikuta Sanzo to Kyoto for training in order to promote Naruko lacquerware. It is said that these two men laid the foundation of the lacquerware industry and led to the subsequent prosperity of Naruko lacquerware.

Japanese lacquerware
Source: tetotetote

The “Naruko-mura Fudoki Shoze” written in the latter half of the 18th century records ground wooden products and lacquered products as specialty products of Naruko, which suggests that lacquerware was already a major product of Naruko at that time. The “Lacquer Dekouki,” written in the early 19th century, also records that lacquer was being collected in Naruko. Naruko lacquerware has since undergone many technical innovations and has been handed down to the present day. In 1951, Sawaguchi Goichi invented “Ryubun-nuri,” which is characterized by a pattern that looks like flowing sumi ink, and it is widely known as a unique type of lacquerware unique to Naruko.


Sendai Chest is elaborate wood-made chest you can use for life long.  We hope you get interested in Japanese culture and traditional crafts, and use it in your daily lives. For those of us who wish and support the development of traditional Japanese crafts, we hope that people from overseas will visit Miyagi as well. Not only to experience the traditional crafts of Miyagi, but also to learn how the people there have rebuilt their traditions after the catastrophe. I would be very happy if you could think about such things while sightseeing in Miyagi. How about a Kokeshi doll as a souvenir? How about decorating your home with top quality chests of drawers and lacquerware? You will surely find a good encounter in Miyagi.


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