“Kyousoku” Arm Rest
by Ishiyama-shi-i Gen’tarou Yori’ie
Copyright © 2019, Elliott C. Evans
While it is not true that the Japanese did not know about furniture (They had imported the idea of tables, chairs, desks, and other items from the mainland during the eighth century Nara period.) it is true that they have always been primarily a floor-seated culture. Starting with the high-culture of the Heian period in the ninth century, Japan returned to its traditional roots and it basically stayed there until modern times. Now this does not mean that Japan did not have any furniture, just that much of the indoor furniture was designed for the benefit of one seated on the floor. Perhaps one of the most interesting pieces is the item called the “kyousoku”.
A kyousoku is a free-standing arm rest, as if one arm of a chair has been removed and placed on the floor. I had seen them in museums and books, but it was by watching Japanese historical movies that I gained an understanding of how they were used, and how handy one could be. Normally, the kyousoku is kept off to one side of where a person is sitting, whether on a tatami mat, zabuton cushion, or raised dais. If you have ever sat on the floor like this, you know that eventually it gets very tiring to keep yourself upright without the benefit of a chair back or arm to lean on. When the floor-seated person wants to sit more comfortably, the person leans to the side onto the kyousoku, or the kyousoku is brought around to the front and the person leans forward placing their forearms or elbows on top of the kyousoku.
I have seen several different styles of kyousoku. Some are highly decorated with carved support spindles and detailed painting. Some are functional and quite sturdy, of heavy wood that is finished simply. Some are topped with cushions, and some are not. Later-period kyousoku were even quite boxy, with storage space beneath their padded lids.
I chose to make a kyousoku from commercially available lumber, and entirely by hand to exercise some useful woodworking skills. You only need a few tools to make the style that I chose. A saw (nokogiri), a hand drill (kiri), and a couple of chisels (nomi) were all that I needed for cutting and shaping.
My design follows typical joinery for a low writing table called a fuzukue. The top is a flat straight plank with curved ends. It is cut from 1×6 poplar lumber. Two cross-grain battens are fastened to the underside with a sliding dovetail. These battens keep the top from warping, and provide through-mortises for attaching the legs. They are cut from 1×2 poplar lumber. The legs are carved planks with tenons at both ends. They were cut from 1×10 lumber, though they could have been 1×8 if it had been available. The feet are more 1×2 poplar, with blind mortises so that the delicate tatami would be protected from harm.
After completing construction, I decided to finish the kyousoku with several layers of artificial lacquer (black polyurethane). After a significant amount of polishing to smooth the finish, I embellished the finish with gold paint in a traditional karakusa (”Chinese vines” or arabesque) pattern to simulate “hira-maki-e”.
Kyousoku Arm Rest
“Kyousoku” Arm Rest
Baroness Aranwen Ap Rhys Verch Gwalter
Beautiful! Interesting commentary. I never noticed these before, now I will.
Coinneach Mac an Leigh
More a question than a comment: are the dovetail keys straight or tapered?
Lady Ilaria of Delftwood
Beautiful work! I especially like the different examples you included of how to use this, it really brought it to life for me.
Very interesting entry! Well-written documentation, lots of very useful images to support the design and technique you used. I’m curious about the gold paint — did you find any information on how they made that in Japan during this time? Was it a form of gold leaf or something else? This isn’t a criticism, I’m just honestly curious if there’s anyway to find that out. Overall, really lovely piece. Thanks for sharing this! Katja
Gorgeous work and fine craftsmanship. I genuinely enjoyed learning about the purpose of the stunning work of art and your process. Thank you!