By Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Furniture for samurai,
commoners, and actors
With four distinctive seasons, Japan is blessed with a wide variety of trees and forest types. For this reason, wood has been the primary material used for architecture and furnishings since ancient times. Woodwork can be roughly divided into seven different types: sashimono (fine cabinetmaking, or joinery), kurimono (hollowed-out forms), horimono (carving), magemono (bentwork), tagamono (cooperage—slats set around a base and held in place by a ring, such as in a barrel), and amimono (interwoven wood strips). Among these, sashimono is a complex technique based on intricate joinery (tsunagi) and tenons and mortises (hozo). The history goes back to the ancient court culture of the Heian period (794–1185). Woodworking crafts in Edo advanced during the Edo period (1615–1868), when skilled artisans were called to the Edo metropolis from all parts of the country. Eventually, with increasingly stable living conditions, the demands for furniture increased. Sashimono carpenters of Edo made many types of home furnishings, honing their techniques and catering to the tastes of the samurai, merchants, and kabuki actors (nashizono sashimono).
Woodwork loved by Edoites
Compared with the fine cabinetmaking of Kyoto (Kyō sashimono), which developed out of both the court nobility’s taste for elegance and decorativeness and the Way of Tea's preference for simplicity, Edo sashimono reflects the taste of samurai and commoners. It is based on straight lines, little ornamentation, and a polished lacquer finishes to bring out the wood grain. These furnishings loved by the Edoites only started being called “Edo sashimono” in the late 1960s. In 1983 Edo sashimono was designated a Tokyo Traditional Industrial Art, and in 1997 the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (presently, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) designated it as a Traditional Craft of Japan. Modern artisans have inherited the “clear cut, plain, solid” art of Edo furniture making.
Modern Edo fine cabinetmaking(1)
A variety of wood types are used to make Edo sashimono, including mulberry, amur cork tree, zelkova, Japanese cypress (hinoki), cedar, paulownia, ash, and hovenia. Since the Edo period, pieces made of mulberry taken from islands around Tokyo, Mikurajima and Miyakejima, were prized for the outstanding beauty of their wood grain. Working them, however, required such great skill in handling that the craftsmen specializing in this art were called "Kuwamonoshi” (mulberry joinery masters) out of respect. For this chest, a thick island mulberry was sliced into four thin boards to create sliding doors of exquisite beauty.
Modern Edo fine cabinetmaking(2)
Small furnishings such as sewing boxes, lanterns, and chests of drawers with handles needed fine workmanship and were called “kusemono.” Portable miniature furnishings have always been popular among the Japanese.
Modern Edo fine cabinetmaking (3)
Originally Edo sashimono mirror stands were made primarily for kabuki actors; later they spread among the commoners as luxury goods. Small sized mirror stands are still popular today. The mirror on such a stand can be lifted up when needed; when not in use, it is folded down with its wickerwork backside serving as a top lid.
Joinery techniques (1):
Object-oriented cutting and planing
The timber is cut so its dimensions match the furniture to be produced with a focus on bringing out the brilliance of the wood grain. This process of cutting up the tree into blocks has a significant effect on the finished product. Then it is given an even thickness using line-marking gauges (kebiki), rulers, and planes.
Joinery techniques (2):
Mortises or grooves called hozo are carved into the wood in order to join two boards in a blind joint that is not not visible from the surface. The technical term for a hozo is a “shiguchi.” Typical techniques such as arikumi (dovetail), sanpōdome (three-way mitered corner joint), rōsoku hozo (lit., "candle groove," a mortise and tenon joint in which two pieces attach through a board). It is due to such techniques that Edo fine cabinetry is said to last a hundred years, and it is through these skills that the artisans show their craft.
Joinery techniques (3):
Once each part of the chest has been given all the necessary matching joins, the chest is temporarily assembled. After fine-tuning the joints to assure that they engage well, the chest is re-assembled. If necessary a mallet is used to assemble the joints precisely.
Joinery techniques (4):
After smoothing the surface of the chest with a plane, rounding off the corners, and completing other decorative finishing touches, the surface is polished using sandpaper, horsetails, and muku leaves.
Joinery techniques 5:
Coating and metal fittings
To finish the chest, repeated layers of natural lacquer are painted on, wiped away, and then dried; this is called “fukiurushi”. Depending the product, it may be coated in urethane or other types of finish, or even remain uncoated. The coating is usually outsourced. The handles and metal fittings are ready‐made or made by a chaser or a metal smith and customized to match the product.
Edo sashimono today and in the future
Currently, ten master artisans and five apprentices belong to the Edo Sashimono Cooperative. The active artisans range from being in their 20s to their 80s and recently women artisans have emerged. The present challenge for Edo sashimono is to adapt the woodwork made for Japanese-style architecture to a more modern lifestyle. Efforts go into creating products that will not warp in air conditioned or floor heated environments, as well as into new designs that blend into contemporary styles, yet still keep the original beauty of Edo sashimono.
Information provided by Edosashimono Kyoudoukumiai
Photo by Minamoto Tadayuki
Text written by Tanaka Atsuko
Exhibition created by Taoka Yuri, Watanabe Masako Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
English translation by Miyo Kurosaki Bethe
Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum
Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University