Kishu Chests, One of the highest quality drawers


Kishu Chests, a synonym for high-class chest of drawers

Kishu Chests (also called Kishu Tansu) is a representative traditional craft of Wakayama Prefecture. Japanese people once called Wakayama Prefecture ” Kishu”, so the name Kishu Chests came from the name of the region. The history of the chests began from the land of trees, rich in nature, under the watchful eye of Itatakeru no Mikoto, the god of wood. Kishu Chests are highly durable and decorative, and many people have loved as high-class chests of drawers.

Paulownia chests represent the so-called Japanese chests of drawers. In addition to its soft and beautiful grain, paulownia wood contains a lot of air which allows it to retain moisture properly, making it suitable for storing clothing in the Japanese climate. There are two types of paulownia chests: “Sanpo-kiri”, which uses paulownia on the front, top and both sides, another for “Mae-kiri”, which uses paulownia only on the front. There are different types of paulownia chests in Japan, such as Kamo Chests or Kasukabe paulownia chests.

Kishu Chests adopt a tonoko (grindstone) finish. Smooth the surface with a grain finish, and the drawers are light and easy to pull out. The drawers are so airtight that when the users of the drawer push back, the drawer next to it slides right out, protecting the clothes from insects and moisture. craft each piece carefully by a highly skilled craftsman who have spent three years honing his chisel and more than 10 years honing his cane.

Kishu chests
Source: Mono-zukuri Wakayama

The history of Kishu chests is still a mystery.

The origin of tansu production in Kishu is unclear in fact.  But according to the “Nanki Tokugawa History” that describes the history of the Tokugawa family in Kishu in which there are some keys to understand the history. Wakayama Castle burned out in 1846, and the castle tower and other buildings turned  into ashes along with many other tools. In 1850, they began to rebuild the castle tower. At the same time, furniture such as nagamochi (a traditional Japanese wooden implement) were also rebuilt. That suggests that the Wakayama Castle had the technology to manufacture boxed goods such as nagamochi at that time.

On the other hand, an old document came up in the Sowa family in Kowa Town, Wakayama Prefecture. The finding had something to do with wedding preparations in 1844, 1853, and 1856,  recording that “At the end of April, one-hand chest existed in Wakayama ” (Wakayama is present-day Wakayama City). That indicates chests were already a part of the wedding furnishings of the nobility in those days, even outside of the samurai class. This is consistent with the fact that Shindori was a district of furniture stores from the Meiji and Taisho periods to the Showa period.

Manufacturing Method and Process

1. Preparation of woods

In order to produce high quality chests of drawers, first of all, good quality paulownia wood is necessary for the material. Paulownia logs between 30 and 60 years old are as “masame zai” (straight grain lumber), while people call others” itame zai”. The rings of quarter-sawn paulownia are thin and uniform, and the wood is less subject to warping. Itame-zai is slightly inferior in quality to masa-me zai, and the annual rings look like mountains. Set aside the selected wood for while to dry under natural conditions for six months to two years. This process allows the wood to lose its roughness and the grain to become more beautiful.

2. Plate processing

After drying, Cut the boards corresponding to each part of the chest into the correct size. The boards for doors and drawer fronts must be especially beautiful. Cut out 2-3 cm wide, quarter-sawn boards with a beautiful grain and  carefully inspect them for scratches, knots, and crookedness. After cut the boards, glue them in piece , properly secure, and then press to form a single board. Carefully sharpen the surface of the board with a plane to complete the process.

3. Assembly

Next, Assemble the processed boards. This procedure is  for each part of the chests. The first part is the “body,” which consists of the top board, base board, shelves, and side boards. The vertical boards are assembled together by making a convex and concave incision at the edge of each board. We call them “kumitehozo,” and there are a number of traditional forms of kumite. For example, there are “ant-shaped kumite-hozo,” which resembles the shape of an ant’s head, and “wrapped ant-shaped kumite-hozo,” in which the joints are not visible from one side.

Before joining the “body,”  temporarily assemble and adjust the body parts. After that, it is time for the final assembly. When fitting the back plate, nailing the wood board before gluing. Next to the nailing is to wipe with water to make them stick and to remove any marks left by the nails. After dry the body wood, polish up the surface of the products. The reason for using wooden nails is to prevent rust that happens with ordinary steel nails.

4. Finishing

After the “body” comes the “drawer. The first step is to hit the “kumite-hozoku” to compress the wood. This is to make it easier to assemble the mortises and to close the gaps by the wood’s ability to recover. Like the body, fix the drawers with wooden nails, wipe with water, dry, and finish with a plane. The “tray” for storing kimonos gets completed by securing the frame with hemp twine, inserting the bottom board, nailing it in place, wiping it dry, and then shaving the outside into a round shape.

Polish the surface of the assembled “body” with the “Uzukuri” technique. Uzukuri is a small brush made from a grass root called kalkaya. Polishing brings out the grain of the wood beautifully. Then, the grain of the wood will become further beautiful with the coat of a mixture of yashabusha, a kind of boiled nut juice, and tonoko, a fine grained stone powder. After waxing the entire piece, fit the doors and drawers and finally attach the hardware to complete the process.

Kishu Chests


Kishu chests make the most of paulownia wood. Their soft texture, color, and beautiful grain create an atmosphere of comfort and elegance. In case of fire, paulownia wood absorbs water from air so it does not burn easily: thus people say that  “save the contents by burning the body”. Today, a high-class paulownia chest attracts a large number of people.  In Japan, there are other traditional crafts made from paulownia chests of drawers. And they are all very attractive products coupled with the high quality of paulownia. For example, Inami wood carving and Kyo-Sashimono are noteworthy traditional Japanese paulownia crafts. If you are interested in paulownia products, you can learn more about them from the links.

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