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Japanese Fans

Japan flag. We Could All Use a Fan

Japanese Fans - sensu & uchiwa

by Alan J. Wiren

Japanese folding fan.Imagine a device small enough to fit in your pocket that can store and transmit messages and pictures, lets you network with various communities, advertise wealth and social status, and even lets you play games in your free time. You might be thinking of a cell phone, but in Japan, centuries ago, there was already a devise that could do all that and more. In English it is called a fan, but that word fudges over myriad distinctions that are important in Japanese culture.

The English word, fan, can refer to a device that keeps your computer cooled, or to something you can hold in your hand and wave to cool yourself. Perhaps it is because of how deeply involved the hand held fan is in early Japanese culture that there is a distinction made there between the two. The electronic fan is called a senpuuki, but when you talk about the hand held fan, there are variations of form, function, and appearance that all have unique, Japanese names.

We can begin with the flat, immutable fan that is waved from its handle, much as you might wave a broad leaf by its stem. This is called an uchiwa, and it probably came to Japan from China.

The history of the fan is not at all clear-cut. When you think of how simple the basic idea is, a tool that is a bit more efficient than a hand waved in front of the face, it is obvious that the fan is likely one of those inventions that sprang up at around the same time in most civilizations on the earth - at least the ones in warmer climates. The fan that symbolized position, and expressed personality, however, the fan that was art, seems to have developed in the East.

Japanese folding fan.

The uchiwa has become a symbol of the Japanese summer and can often be seen with its wooden or bamboo handle stuck into the sash at the back of a light cotton kimono or even a pair of jeans. They are often painted or printed with designs that suggest cooling breezes or streams, or the flowers of summer. Uchiwa are also a popular advertising handout in Japan. They are made, in that incarnation from paper or plastic, with more garish illustrations, and often a hole in the covering material in lieu of a handle.

Then there is the fan that is made from pleated paper, silk, or other cloth, allowing it to be spread into an arc or folded into a neat, rectangular shape. It is called a sensu, and some claim this one in particular is a Japanese invention.

Japanese folding fan.

Fans, in their various forms, have crisscrossed the Eastern oceans, always changing style as they went. And, of course, there is no clear record or evidence pointing to who created the first folding fan or where it happened. When you examine the legendary origins, such as a piece of paper being folded up to cool a fever, the point becomes moot. The basic device was probably "invented" hundreds of times over before it caught the eye of society's upper crust, who had the wherewithal to make it into a fashion accessory.

One early form appeared in Kyoto, in the ninth century, when the cost of paper was prohibitive. Ordinary records and such were kept on thin slats of wood (the kind you might see today being burned as votive offerings in some Japanese temples). It seems that someone got the idea of binding a number of slats together at one end and running a string through them at the other, thus creating a crude, but effective sensu.

Japanese folding fan.

Not long after, more elegant realizations of the folding fan, made from cypress wood, appeared in the capital city. These varied in structure and appearance. Women's fans were more colorful and often bore painted flowers and had a decorative ribbon attached. Men's fans were plainer and larger. The number of inner pieces, or "sticks" that made up a sensu, was an indicator of social status.

One innovation that seems to have traveled from Japan to China was the shape of the outer pieces, or "guards". One sign of quality in a folding fan is bow-shaped guards with the ends curved inward. This causes the fan to snap tightly closed, compressing and protecting the ends of any material that covers the sticks.

On a return trip from China, Japan imported the sensu in the form of traditional dance fans. Although fan dancing, a gesture of friendship and a show of social status, has been practiced from very early times in Japanese civilization, the modern form of the dance fan, with eight sticks and two guards, was probably adopted from Chinese traditional dance.

Japanese folding fans.

Another performing art that makes use of sensu is rakugo, traditional Japanese story telling. The rakugo narrator takes on the various characters as his story unfolds and often suggests a fascinating variety of stage properties with nothing more than a folding fan.

Fans also found their way into warfare in Japan. Constructed wholly or partially of different metals, various types of fans were used on the battlefield. Very large fans were used for sending signals and smaller ones with bronze sticks and iron guards were carried for cooling oneself.

The tessen was a clandestine instrument of war. Either a folding fan with iron guards, or a solid club made to look like a closed sensu, the tessen could be brought to places where more obvious weapons were forbidden, and used for offense or defense, or even as an aid in swimming.

The main role of the sensu, in Japan however, was among gentle society, and its popularity eventually spread to all corners of the globe. It was especially well received in Europe, where by the 17th century even the Queen of England could be seen carrying a folding fan.

Japanese uchiwa fan.

In the 19th Century a French company that manufactured fans published a list of gestures such as touching a finger to the tip of a folded fan. These, they said, comprised a "language of the fan" that had been passed down from generation to generation. There is little evidence to confirm the latter claim, but you can find several different versions on the internet, and sharing this kind of secret communication can be fun.

But if you want to talk the talk, you will need a folding fan of your own. There could be no better place to get one than the homeland of the sensu.

Text and Photos by Alan Wiren

Other articles by Alan Wiren

'To the Winner Goes the Eye': Katsuoji Temple
Soy Sauce: An Honorable Savor
Japanese Lacquerware: the lustrous charm of urushi
Shodoshima - Japan's Olive Island
Mobile Phones - keitai
Ebisu & Daikoku: Bringing Home the Bounty
Japanese Seaweed: Essence and Accents from the Sea
Japanese Green Tea
Lake Biwa Canal Museum of Kyoto
Hamamatsu Festival: the Children's Battle
Takoyaki: Icon of Osaka
Muroji Temple, Nara: A Dragon Runs Through It
Instant Noodles Museum
Wakayama Marina City
Living the Echizen Style
Soba Dojo

Books on Japanese Culture