Kitamae Shipping—Four

An early style of sea chest loosely following land-based “safes” called kakesuzuri.  
Made by Ryohei Kido.  Photo courtesy of Ryohei Kido.
Keep it Safe
These days payments for everyday purchases in cash are becoming more and more of a rarity.  Although slow to be introduced, even in Japan card payments can now be made for more or less anything.  Nevertheless, cash payments, especially with new notes, always seem to have a good deal of kudos.

As it was in most countries, sixty or so years ago in Japan cash was the only way of paying for goods and a trip to a bank was the only way of getting any.  In rural areas in particular cash was quite naturally precious and provision for keeping it safe had to be made.

A simple domestic style of tansu in zelkova wood made by Matsumoto Mingei Kagu, a furniture company which specialises in making both Japanese and western style high quality folkcraft furniture.  (Search: matsumin.com)

Most homes back then had a traditional style of chest or tansu in the house, either for clothes, for food and china or for items of any value.  At least one chest would have been a kind of “safe” in which to keep money under lock and key.  But that was not the only way of protecting money.

Recently a 75 year-old Japanese lady who lived deep in the mountains near Okayama when she was a child, told me how money was kept in a special chest with a hidden compartment.

It was this kind of very carefully engineered cabinetmaking that was essential for a Captain of a Kitamae ship.  He was generally not only the captain of his vessel but also entrusted with money and documents related to his cargo.  When in a port he was a focus of trade and his sea chest or funa-tansu was not only a functional piece of furniture but also a status symbol representative of his social standing.

A ship’s master may have owned the ship he sailed in or was hired by the owner or shipping organisation.  In whichever case the Captain had to be someone who could be trusted.  His sea chest, therefore, ensured a level of confidence with which those who either employed him or traded with him could feel comfortable with.

Hidden compartments, access to which was only known to the Captain, were required to deter any casual thief and to frustrate the more determined villain or pirate.

A very large plank of zelkova wood at a timber auction in Gifu, central Japan.  It measured about six metres in length and over a metre at its widest point.  The plank was about 8 cm thick.  The grain can be very complex and is enhanced by the application of lacquer, which fills the pores.  The whole plank would be sold in one piece and processed according to its application.

Potential buyers gather round the massive boards, which are sold individually, 
either by open auction or by concealed bids.
The sea chests were usually made of zelkova wood—a type of figured hardwood similar to elm—and reinforced with decorative metal fittings.  Keys and catches, sliding panels and hinged doors all played their part in forming secreted compartments designed to house cash or valuable documents.

The exterior and some of the inner surfaces were finished with true lacquer—it served to protect the wood, to enhance the grain and to generally enrich the overall appearance of a chest with its black metal fittings.

Paulownia wood was generally used for inner draws and boxes because of its light weight and ability to absorb moisture.  It is thought, too, that it helped to make one of these sea chests buoyant, sometimes only floating just below the surface and thus avoiding detection.  If a chest was washed overboard and found its way to a shore, it could generally be identified by some mark or other amongst the fittings.

With a sea chest all was safe.  Well, save enough, unless an interested party was willing to run off with one in tact.

Iwayado tansu made in Iwate prefecture in the north of Japan can be very decorative and grand.  This example was made by Fujisato Woodcraft (Search: Iwate.info.co.jp/IwayadoTansu/ )  English site available.
The metalwork of an Iwayado tansu is often very elaborate.

Reference:  TRADITIONAL JAPANESE CABINETRY published by  Weatherhill, Inc. written by Ty and Kiyoko Heineken.  In-depth information on Sea Chests and other types of tansu.

First edition,1981
First paperback edition, 2004
published by  Weatherhill, Inc,41Monroe Turnpike,Trumbull,CT 06611

Unless stated all images by Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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