Many skilled individuals were encouraged to live and work in Edo (Tokyo) by the Shogunate right from the outset of the Edo period (1600-1868), and craft industries developed as a result of the formation of enclaves within the districts of Kanda and Nihonbashi for such specialists as carpenters, smiths, and dyers.
The emergence of a consumer society that took place in Japan from about the middle of the Edo period in turn led to a specialization among carpenters, with some producing bentwood goods, others making fine screens and doors, and still others who constructed religious and palace architecture. Fine cabinet makers and joiners also emerged and are still active to this day.
While fine cabinetry and joinery in Kyoto developed as a result of supplying the needs of the Imperial court and the tea ceremony, the style which still characterizes Edo Sashimono developed by meeting the requirements of the warrior classes, merchants and Kabuki actors resident in Edo. In essence this distinctive Edo style is expressed through sturdy construction and a brevity of form, while avoiding unnecessary ornamentation and maximizing the effects of an attractive grain. Perhaps the best and most highly acclaimed of all the woods used is the so-called shimakuwa, a mulberry from the island of Mikurajima.
The range of goods produced today includes chests, desks, various kinds of stands and shelves. Boxes are also part of a repertoire which is completed by hibachi, items for the tea ceremony and pieces associated with the playing of Japanese music.
While Kyoto sashimono was used to produce articles used by royal family and in tea ceremonies, Edo sashimono is unique in that it was used to produce articles used by samurai families, merchants and Edo kabuki actors. Edo sashimono expresses the essence of the Edo period in its lack of decoration, simple and rugged design, and exhibition of the natural beauty of the wood grain to the greatest degree. In particular, the mulberry trees of Mikurajima Island, known as “Island Mulberries,” are rated as the ultimate building material.
Without using nails, chisels and knives are used to carve interlocking finger and dovetail joints into the timbers and boards, which are then joined together. Additionally, small hand-made wood planes are used to produce a variety of finishes and patterns along the edges of the boards. While the variety of building techniques cannot be seen from the outside, it is the exhaustive use of these techniques in places that cannot be seen that produces a finished product that can be used for decades.