The 8 Best Japanese Tansu Chests

Well crafted furniture is valued in every culture and that is certainly the case with the Japanese tansu chest. Called ‘chests’ rather than dressers, cabinets or storage, tansu is characterized by portability and variable sized drawers or compartments. Traditional tansu was designed for functionality and was specialized to the room in which it would be used. Step tansu, for example provided storage and access to lofts or higher platforms within the home. The hardware that now seems superfluous or decorative originally protected the edges of wooden joints during transport. Hinged handles or rings were that appear to be unnecessary now were located on the side and were once used for carrying. Considered mobile, some chests had rollers and pieces were stacked in odd configurations.

Within that functionality, there was also craftsmanship that was extraordinary. Different types of wood would be used in one cabinet to create interesting features. Some were lacquered preserving the wood and highlighting the detail while others were finished by rubbing with chalk or clay and then sealing with a type of whiskey. This style of furnishings is now available from companies that specialize in imported items from Southeast Asia.

As with any purchase online, there are always factors to consider and business practices that may cause the purchaser concern. Look over these selections and then take a few moments to review the Points to Remember (add link) section at the end of this article.

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1. Hand Crafted Japanese Style Elmwood Petite Step Tansu Chest - Dark Cherry

This absolutely gorgeous petite reproduction of traditional step tansu is handled by China Furniture Online. Adapted from the traditional tansu designs that were fashionable in the 19th century, the piece does have some significant differences from the original design. The first is size. Traditional step tansu would have been wide enough and sturdy enough to function as a steps or stairway. This miniature model is just 14 in deep. It is also intended to be used only for storage and display purposes. Manufacturer statements expressly warn against using this as a set of steps. But, beside that, there are some wonderful similarities that can be found. This piece is handcrafted of Elmwood and is finished on both sides. In this way, it can be used as a room divider or placed against the wall facing in either direction. The piece has 5 drawers and one set of sliding doors. Being completely reversible, it has the wonderful feature of the pass-thru compartments hidden behind the sliding doors. Both sides are embellished with forged iron hardware in keeping with authentic tansu style and a dark cherry finish has been applied that will match most any decor. Overall dimensions are 45"W x 14"D x 37"H. The drawers and compartments are of varying height and width. The hardware looks authentic and greatly adds to the elegant appearance of the piece. Unlike many furniture pieces that can be purchased online, this piece comes fully assembled. Standard shipping is curbside only. Unpacking and setup is the responsibility of the customer. This functional and quality piece will add the spirit of Asia to any home or office.


2. Japanese style tansu, KB15, kiri wood, teak finish.

In contrast to the first selection, this piece is a small chest. Eastern Classics, has several pieces from the Berkley collection listed for online sale. Many pieces can be stacked and used in combination to create traditional tansu configurations and looks. This authentic reproduction of a tansu chest measures 13"W x 12"D x 15"H. It has four equal sized drawers that could serve as a jewelry case or stationary desk for personal document. Drawer size is 1 1/2"H x 11"W. The solid kiri wood (paulownia wood) shows the fine workmanship of a handmade chest. A teak finish has been used to highlight the wood grain and act as a backdrop for the simple iron hardware and drawer pulls that adorn the drawer faces and joint edges. The chest is finished on all sides and weighs 13 pounds. Its simple but clear lines and hammered iron guards speak to a time when furniture had to be as functional as it was beautiful. This company handles several small chests such as this one with some variation of drawer size and placement. Any of the styles could serve the owner well. Shipping is available.

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3. Japanese style tansu, KB7H choba tansu

Another quality example by Eastern Classics, this larger cabinet is 26"W x 12 1/4"D x 21 1/2"H and would make an excellent companion for the previous choice. This cabinet style tansu stands on four iron legs and is made of kiri wood (paulownia wood). It has a teak finish that is light in color but accents the grain and workmanship of the piece. Both this piece and the previous one have the same hammered iron guards and drawer pulls in keeping with the tansu tradition of protecting the joints and stress points of the wood. The cabinet has two sliding doors and two drawers below. The door panels have a unique inlaid pattern that while traditional in style looks very modern by today’s standards. One shelf is permanently fixed to divide the space in half. As was standard with most tansu pieces, handles are placed in the middle of the sides. While not always practical in today’s decor, these handles remind the user that tansu was designed for mobility. The choba design is evident by its raised platform and suitability as a place to store books. Shipping is available and the cabinet does come fully assembled.


4. Oriental Furniture Korean Tansu Style End Table Chest

An excellent reproduction of Korean tansu, this cabinet by Oriental Furniture can serve as a nightstand or small curio table near a reading chair. At 44 pounds, the chest’s dimensions are 15.8 x 23.2 x 22.5 inches. It is made of Elmwood and has 3 drawers. The dark finish provides a backdrop for the traditional hardware and drawer pulls that contrast with the finish. While the description states that the metal is traditional iron, it appears more likely to be brass. The piece comes fully assembled and is shipped to the door. Unpacking and setup are the responsibility of the customer unless upgraded shipping arrangements are made. The company imports goods from all over Southeast Asia and has several pieces in this collection that can be used together to create a wonderfully Oriental inspired decor.

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5. ChinaFurnitureOnline Ming Style Step Tansu Chest'

Production of traditional tansu spanned several decades in Japanese history. The hardware style is sometimes the only difference between pieces that otherwise look identical. This example of step tansu is a petite version of a traditional design. Not intended to be used as steps, the piece is 45"W x 13"D x 49"H. It has a classic black ebony finish with Chinese style hardware reminiscent of the Ming Dynasty. Slightly larger than the piece mentioned in the first choice, this model has 5 drawers and 2 internal compartments that pass-thru to the other side. The reversible nature of the piece makes a wonderful choice for separating an entry area or dividing sections of a room. The company handles additional pieces within the same collection that can be used in concert with this piece.


6. Kiri wood choba tansu, Japanese style small merchant chest, KB3H

Beautiful and functional at the same time, this example of a tansu merchant chest is handled by Eastern Classics. Handcrafted and made of Paulownia (Kiri) wood, the piece has the fine-grained appearance and dovetailed joints indicative of quality craftsmanship. The chest is very light in color and has an asymmetrical design of doors and compartments that are characteristic of traditional tansu pieces. The chest measures 22 1/2"W x 12 1/4"D x 18 1/4"H. It can fit neatly on the top of any cabinet or desk and be used to store jewelry, personal documents or collections of small items such as coins or crafts. A metal stand (sold separately) can be purchased as an accessory. In keeping with authentic tansu, the drawer pulls and joint protecting hardware is made of iron. The wood is finished with a semi-gloss sealer that accents the workmanship and smooth appearance of the wood. Eastern Classics carries several similar pieces in this collection and items can be used together or separately. The item does come completely assembled and is shipped through traditional transportation methods. Delivery does not include unpacking and setup.

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7. ORIENTAL FURNITURE Empress Tansu Chest of Drawers

A totally different look than any other piece on this list, the light colored, heavy-grained wood and heavy iron hardware resemble a more functional and austere time period than the fine-lined products so far. Measuring 16.8 x 31.5 x 37.8 inches, it is one of the larger examples and one of the heaviest at approximately 70 pounds. The solid wood construction is traditional in style and finished in a semi-gloss clear sealer. The etched ironwork motif is carried through the drawer pulls, hinges, and corner guards. The cabinet has three visible drawers and four doors behind which are additional storage compartments. Oriental Furniture imports furniture from all over Southeast Asia that includes a collection of pieces that coordinate with this item. Newly available, the piece comes fully assembled and can be shipped to most locations. Additional charges may be added if setup is required inside the home.


8. Empress Tansu 6 Drawer Dresser by Oriental Furniture

The largest of the pieces on this list and a companion piece to the previous item, this 6-drawer cabinet has all the characteristics of tansu style but with more modern functionality. At 18 inches wide, it offers storage for bulkier items and at 48 inches wide and 34 inches tall, it is a substantial piece of furniture weighing nearly 100 pounds. It has three small drawers at the top and three full width drawers under those. The dresser, itself, is made of solid wood and adored with etched, black lacquered metal. The style simulates the tradition of protecting edges and joints with iron supports. The piece also has decorative hasps (type of lock) that look authentic to the period. The style of this piece may be less refined than some of the options here but nonetheless it has a quality that is identifiable as Asian in design. Fully assembled, the product can be shipped. The company, Oriental Furniture, handles imported products from several countries across Southeast Asia.

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Points to remember

Third-Party Sellers

Online retailers such as Amazon, Walmart, Wayfair and others would not be able to offer products such as these without partnerships with third-party sellers. These partnerships work well most times but occasionally, such sellers do not represent products fairly. While the purchase may come from a reputable online dealer, be aware of the risks when purchasing from these sellers when third-party partnerships are involved.

Face Value of Photos

The old saying - “A picture is worth a thousand words” - may not apply to the fast-growing trend of online shopping. Too often, shoppers rely on the photo only to realize the size or detail is not as accurate as pictured. Read the descriptions and question any post that has limited information about the product. Compare the cost to the description and be sure the investment is in line with expectations. Photos can be deceiving.

Country of Origin

Be aware that the products listed here are sold by import companies and country of origin should not be assumed. Concerns about human rights violations or child labor should be addressed to the seller prior to purchase.

Shipping and Returns

Purchasing larger pieces of furniture can present challenges for delivery personnel. Pay particular attention to the weight and size of the product. Most carrier services only deliver to the door and will not bring the package into the home or up stairs of any kind. Delivery vehicles may be larger than normal and they may need more room to turn around or maneuver. In like fashion, consider what returning the item might entail. How much trouble would it be to return it with no local seller to provide assistance?

Finally, buying online is convenient and makes hundreds of products available that might not otherwise be purchased. Just remember that it is not the same as buying from a local retailer. Enjoy shopping!

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