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From Value One, Spring 2014 No. 44  

High-caliber ornamental fittings

The Japanese chests known as tansu reportedly first appeared during the early Edo Period (1603–1867). As the common man's standard of living rose, these chests came into use nationwide, and by the latter years of the era were being produced in many areas of the country. Even today, high-quality examples of tansu—designated as a traditional handicraft item—are made in various places, including Kamo (Niigata Prefecture), Kasukabe (Saitama Prefecture), Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture), Nagoya (Aichi Prefecture), Senshu (Osaka) and Kishu (Wakayama Prefecture). Among these traditional products, the Iwayado tansu made in Oshu City, Iwate Prefecture are recognized for their beautifully designed metal fittings.

Iwayado tansu date back to the Tenmei Era (1781–89). The Great Tenmei Famine, said to be the worst during the Edo Period, took many lives in Iwayado (now Esashi Ward, Oshu City) at the northern end of the Sendai Domain. Alarmed by this tragedy, the lord of Iwayado, Iwaki Muramasa, reportedly decided to depart from economic dependence on one industry—rice cultivation—by promoting the production of wooden furniture, including tansu and nagamochi (large oblong chests).

Iwayado tansu have long been recognized for their gorgeous metal fittings, which among other motifs depict dragons, lions, peony flowers and cranes. Some eighty such pieces—including handles, corner protectors, hinge joints and locks—may adorn a single tansu.

Hand-wrought and carved fittings, embodying traditional skills since the Edo Period, are made one by one by artisans, who work on iron or copper sheets with hammers and chisels to carve elaborate patterns. In particular, the technique known as uchidashi (embossing) is an art of consummate skill that achieves stunning three-dimensional patterns. If the embossed pattern represents a dragon or a lion, the dynamic design makes the viewer wonder whether the animal might jump out of the background, and even the creature's facial expression reflects the artisan's soul. The refined beauty surpasses the common standard of craftsmanship.

Mr. Hiroshi Kikuchi, a qualified traditional craftsman in Iwayado, is a supreme master of this handwork with more than three decades of experience. "Even if I think I've done a good job, in three days or so I find something wrong here and there," he says, revealing the depth of his art.

By breathing life into a small piece of metal sheet, the craftsman can give a tansu great brilliance as a piece of furniture and art. Therein lies the very essence of the Iwayado tansu.
This Iwayado tansu made during the late Edo Period is still in use at Kikuhiro, a metal carving craft company


A pattern is wrought on a copper sheet with a chisel


Very fine metal carving requires some two hundred different chisels


Younger traditional craftsmen are also active at Kikuhiro


Mr. Kikuchi, who also serves as a vice president of the Traditional Craftsmen's Association of Japan, is working hard to groom successors of his traditional art and develop new consumer demand—both common problems in production centers of traditional crafts in Japan. "Many production centers have been losers in competitions with imported products from China and elsewhere, and find their base subsiding," he notes, "but I want to see the tradition of craftsmanship we inherited from the Edo Period survive." Mr. Kikuchi stays busy promoting the products of traditional craftsmanship.
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