Know Your Japanese Antiques

Portable Furniture and Decorative Accessories from Japan

Antiques with Asian motifs and names can be confusing to the novice collector, but many find them to be a fascinating field of study once they are submersed. Take Japanese antiques, for example. The antique screens, boxes, chests, and decorative items that were used centuries ago in Japan provide a glimpse into another culture in addition to being beautiful decorative accents. Learn about a number of these fascinating objects here. 

  • 01 of 10

    Byobu Folding Screen

    Byobu Japanese Screen
    One of a pair of Edo Period six-panel screens, gouache on paper, Japan, c. 1700-1801. Photo courtesy of prices4antiques.com

    Byobu (pronounced bee-yo-boo) are a type of light but sturdy Japanese folding screens, consisting of two to six (sometimes as many as eight) panels made of silk or sturdy paper, mounted on hinged wooden frames. They could be used as room dividers or as decorations for special occasions.

    Dating from the 7th or 8th century, they became increasingly ornate in the early Edo Period, around 1603. Many were produced by significant artists of the time who painted elaborate scenes on them in gold leaf and...MORE metallic paints to create detailed, luminous works.

    Byobu were usually made in pairs, but finding an intact set of antique Japanese screens like these can prove difficult today.

  • 02 of 10

    Hanakago or Ikebana Basket

    Hanakago flower basket with irregular plaiting technique, signature partially illegible but appears to have been signed by Maeda Chiku-bosai, Japan, c. 1872-1950.
    Hanakago flower basket with irregular plaiting technique, signature partially illegible but appears to have been signed by Maeda Chiku-bosai, Japan, c. 1872-1950. Photo courtesy of www.shibui.com

    The hanakago (pronunced han-a-kay-go) is a Japanese bamboo basket used for flowers such as orchids and other floral arrangements. It is traditionally tall and slim (like a vase), with long, looped handles, but can be of varying shapes including half-moon, boats or more fancifully of insects or animals.

    These baskets are often made of different colors of bamboo woven in interesting patterns. Originally dating from the Muromachi period (1392-1573), they were many times used in tea ceremonies

    Hanakago...MORE are sometimes referenced as ikebana baskets. 

  • 03 of 10

    Jizai Metal Scuptures

    Bronze and copper-patinated jizai okimono of an eight-footed crab, Japan, Meiji Period.
    Bronze and copper-patinated jizai okimono of an eight-footed crab, Japan, Meiji Period. - www.flyingcranesantiques.com

    Jizai (pronounced gee-zigh) are realistic, often life-sized, animal figures made of iron, bronze, copper or alloys such as copper and gold or copper and silver. The bodies and limbs are articulated, and can move in a manner similar to that of the actual creatures they represent ("jizai" means "unencumbered" in Japanese).

    This metal craft developed in Japan around 1713 among arms and armor makers, and flourished in the 19th century after these craftsmen were forbidden to ply their...MORE craft making weapons. Insects, crustaceans (like the very lifelike crab shown here), and birds were all popular forms for jizai, as well as fictional creatures such as dragons.

  • 04 of 10

    Kodansu Miniature Chest

    Shibayama, silver and gold lacquer kodansu, Japan, Meiji Period.
    Shibayama, silver and gold lacquer kodansu, Japan, Meiji Period. - Flying Cranes Antiques Ltd. (www.trocadero.com/flyingcranes)

    A kondansu (pronounced koh-dan-soo) is a type of small (usually no more than six inches in height) cabinet or chest resting on mounts. They are square or rectangular in shape ("kondansu" means "small box-chest" in Japanese). These contain several drawers behind hinged single or double doors, which sometimes can be locked. Kondansu also have a handle on top for easy carrying.

    These are often quite ornate, inlaid with elaborate designs in precious metals and lacquered. The designs...MORE often carried over to the interior of the chest as well. They were used for storing personal objects dating back at least to the Edo Period (1603-1868) in Japan.

    Learn more about Japanese chests, known as tansu, below. 

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Kyodai Dressing Mirror

    Kyodai mirrored dressing stand made of sakura wood, Japan.
    Kyodai mirrored dressing stand made of sakura wood, Japan. Photo courtesy of www.shibui.com

    The kyodai (pronounced ki-oh-die, and sometimes spelled kyoudai) is a mirrored Japanese dressing stand or miniature table with multiple drawers. Some kyodai even had a secret compartment located in the back. 

    Traditional models, dating from the Edo period (1603-1867), had a hand mirror resting on a slanted stand on the top, placed perpendicular to the drawers (so that they would open to the side of the user, not in front). Later models from the Meiji period (1868-1912) had surmounted mirrors,...MORE similar to European dressing stands. However, they often remained tall by Western standards - as much as 30 inches high - because they were placed not on tables but on the floor, and the user would kneel before them. 

  • 06 of 10

    Ry­­ōshibako Stationery Box

    This ry­­ōshibako, wood with gold lacquer and silver, Meiji period (1868-1912) has a simple conch design.
    This ry­­ōshibako, wood with gold lacquer and silver, Meiji period (1868-1912) has a simple conch design. - Erik Thomsen Asian Art (www.erikthomsen.com)

    A ry­­ōshibako (pronounced rye-oh-shee-back-o) is a Japanese square or rectangular box used for storing writing paper, sometimes with a removable shelf. They are typically made of aged wood wrapped in linen or silk and then painted with multiple layers of lacquer.

    These beautiful boxes are many times decorated with detailed raised-relief or painted designs inside and out, using gold, silver or mother-of-pearl, with the more ornate design on the interior - exemplifying the Japanese delight in...MORE hidden decoration. Sometimes several different types of lacquering techniques were used to create the scenes on, and in, these boxes. These are often companion pieces to suzuribako, which is a box used for writing utensils (see example below).

  • 07 of 10

    Suzuribako Box

    Suzuribako by Yoshida Ikkei (active about 1930 –1989) made of carved lacquer, Japan.
    Suzuribako by Yoshida Ikkei (active about 1930 –1989) made of carved lacquer, Japan. Photo courtesy of www.erikthomsen.com

    In a sparsely-decorated Japanese room, an ornate suzuribako (pronounced sue-zer-ee-back-oh) often functioned as a decorative, as well as a functional, item. 

    This is a Japanese box used for storing writing utensils, with places for an ink stick, a grinding stone, a water dropper, brushes, and a small knife. They are typically made of aged wood wrapped in linen or silk and then painted with multiple layers of lacquer. These are usually rectangular, but can be more exotically shaped - round,...MORE crescent or even in the shape of a musical instrument.

    The fanciest boxes were adorned with a raised-relief or painted design inside and out, often using gold, silver or mother-of-pearl. These designs often referenced popular fables, poems or legends, or they might depict a famous locale. First imported from China, as early as the 10th century, by the early 1900s they became largely ceremonial, as western pens and pencils became more common.

    A small chest with multiple drawers used to store writing instruments is also known as a suzuribako.

  • 08 of 10

    Tansu Chest

    An example of a sea chest (Funa-Dansu), one of the most popular forms of tansu with collectors.
    An example of a sea chest (Funa-Dansu), one of the most popular forms of tansu with collectors. - www.shibui.com

    The word tansu literally means cabinetry in Japanese, and in this instance it references a number of different types of clever and portable chests. These storage solutions were used in all areas of homes and also for travel (as with the sea chest shown here). Wheeled tansu were used by merchants as well. 

    Note: The word “tansu” becomes “dansu” when linked with another word to describe the chest's functionality, as with the kondansu mentioned above. 

    Learn more and view additional examples: A...MORE Tally of Tansu

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Tebako Box

    Writing Box by Mikami Yōkōdō with Hundred Kings decoration
    Writing box by Mikami Yōkōdō with Hundred Kings decoration, Japan, Taisho-early Showa Period. Photo Courtesy of Erik Thomsen Asian Art (www.erikthomsen.com)

    The tebako (pronouced tee-back-oh) is a Japanese accessories box, dating from the 17th century. These antiques are traditionally square or rectangular with a covering lid, and made of aged wood that's wrapped in linen or silk and then painted with multiple layers of lacquer. The most elaborate examples were inlaid with precious metal or stones and adorned with a raised-relief or painted design inside and out. These were so meticulously crafted that they could take up to a year to make.

    Dependi...MOREng on the use, the tebako has several variations. They could store anything from tea to cosmetics to writing utensils. Originally functional, they have become increasingly used for ceremonial purposes in modern times.

  • 10 of 10

    Tsuitate Screen

    Tsuitate screen, wood and lacquer, Japan, c. 1801-1900.
    Tsuitate screen, wood and lacquer, Japan, c. 1801-1900. Photo courtesy of prices4antiques.com

    This is a type of low, free-standing screen, with a single panel of paper, wood or silk set on a wood stand with two or four low feet, similar to trestle feet or Chinese elephant trunk legs. The tsuitate (pronounced  sue-ta-tay) is often quite ornate, with lacquered frames and intricately painted panels by noted artists. They can be beautifully decorated on both sides. 

    These functioned as room dividers, or they could be used in entryways to protect against drafts in homes. When used in shops,...MORE they could function as a sign or a way of separating the business/public area from the residential/private area. One of the oldest types of Japanese screens, the tsuitate dates as far back as the 7th century

    Special thanks to Troy Segal as a contributing writer for her assistance with this feature.