Why do most TANSU appear so plain and simple? Walter Gropius half jokingly quipped that Japanese inspired design was more Bauhaus then his Bauhaus. In approaching this enigma, we need to consider both Japanese history and culture.
Upon arriving in Tokyo almost 50 years ago, I was taught an adage and told I’d best not forget it: THE NAIL THAT RISES ABOVE OTHERS WILL BE HAMMERED DOWN. True in 1964, the proud year of the Tokyo Olympics. True today, one year after the devastating Tohoku Tsunami. Though feudalism “officially” ended in 1864 with the Meiji Emperor’s invalidation of the Samurai system after 700 years, the spirit of Japan is still rooted in balance, diffidence and an esoteric decorum. Of course there are exceptions, but from my most recent visit less then one month ago, I can attest that still one of the most frequently heard slights heard against an impropriety is: THAT PERSON DOESN’T KNOW THE RULES.
From 1185 until 1864, Japan was structurally a feudal society. The class into which you were born was where you stayed your whole life. Though not free to be a self determining “individual”, there was security in knowing the responsibilities and obligations implicit to your position as a Japanese. In the land of Samurai power, law was subordinate to the arbitrary will of a man wearing two swords who might object to the cut of your clothes. Knowing the” rules”, choosing your words carefully, and keeping a “low public profile”, were essential to survival. If you were a no body, your head might become detached. If you were a some body, you could be “invited” to commit suicide. Being surrounded by well made but unobtrusive possessions became a predisposition in its own right over time.
Though flexible case construction based upon variations of mortise and tenon joinery derived from architecture continued from the Edo Period, several innovations introduced from overseas made it now possible to individualize stylistic appearance.
Because Japan has a distinct rainy season, effective drying of wood to be used by TANSU craftsmen has always been a challenge. The introduction of precisely controlled heat kilns to supplement air drying made it now possible to cut wood thinner and thus save on the cost of material. Further, craftsmen found that animal hide glues as used in Europe and America were far superior in reliability to the indigenous fish glues traditionally used. Now, beautifully figured but inherently unstable hard wood burls could be safely glued to straight grained wood of like species without fear of warping or worse.
Prior to the introduction of iron sheet pressing in the early days of Meiji, all iron plate had to be pounded from ingots and cut to shape with chisels. This tedious, expensive process, per force, limited the range of hardware options for TANSU. With pressing rather then pounding, sheeting could now be made thinner and cut with shears, achieving both an economy and design diversity. Although the application of clear lacquer over a properly prepared stained wood surface to achieve an admirable translucence using a technique known as KIJIRO NURI was well known in Edo, it was expensive and discouraged for use by non Samurai. With the growth of affluence and the fading of class barriers in Meiji, another technique that could achieve a comparable result by mixing lacquer with oil at considerable savings, further tempted the emerging middle class.
In accessing the quality of Japanese cabinetry, I would ask that you look beyond the ornamental. A comparison with the ethic and workmanship of the 19th century American Shakers is appropriate. For both cultures, form was primarily determined by function. Simplicity, balance, utility and durability were shared characteristics. In their specific approaches to materials and techniques, both cultures relied upon local woods, avoided decorative joinery and shunned veneers in favor of the honesty of solid woods. In terms of utilization, the Shaker tendency to build case pieces into the room structure, use structural "dead space" for storage and leave floor spaces open, is paralleled in the 19th century only in Japan.