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Karakuri Tansu
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Teruaki Nakashima
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Karakuri Doll
The modern karakuri tansu (a chest of drawers with a trick mechanism) originated from funa-tansu, which was an ancient type of chest that sailors used from the late Edo period to the beginning of Meiji period (around 1790-1900).
It was not merely chest to them, but a special storage space for keeping important documents, valuables and money on their voyage. The traders of those days used the ships to purchase a large stock of commodities for sale at local markets.
The first funa-tansu was made about five hundred years ago by Kumenosuke Enokizu, who was a servant of Yoshiharu Ashikaga, the twelfth shogun. Further developments were made with funa-tansu later, when the shipping business flourished and sailors started using them to store their personal belongings. At first used mainly by the captain as a strongbox to store valuables, the funa-tansu gradually came to be used by all of the crew members. The shipping voyages up and down the Japan Sea coast were so profitable that they spurred the development of more and more elaborate chests. Gorgeous funa-tansu were manufactured in great numbers as the traders flourished, and they became status symbols among the sailors.

Two types of funa-tansu used as cashboxes, kakesuzu and chobako, were especially prized. Manufacturers added various decorations and karakuri mechanisms to satisfy the need for security. At that time, it took 2 - 3 months for three people to create one funa-tansu: a carpenter who made the cabinetwork, a smith who made the locks and metal fittings, and an artisan who painted the finish.

Data: Osaka Maritime Museum

They made metal fittings with beautiful decoration, coated zelkova wood many times over, and used a classic technique of timbering to avoid damages to the exterior. For the interior, they used paulownia wood which could float on the water. Most important of all, the karakuri mechanisms they used instead of locks were more sophisticated than ever. These manufacturing techniques, especially the detailed cabinetwork and karakuri techniques, were important developments with far-reaching effects. In 1889, when railways were built throughout the country, trading voyages along the coast began to decrease, resulting in the eventual decline of funa-tansu. Although it is true that funa-tansu became obsolete for historical reasons, we still have to admire their quality and worth.

Funa-tansu were the product of knowledge and research by generations of Edo craftsmen. Artisans have not only faithfully recreated the funa-tansu of the past, but also infused them with original ideas to create the karakuri tansu we have today.

 
 
       

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