For Fan Fanatics: Japan's Take on This Ancient Cooling Mechanism

Humans have designed many different tools to keep them from feeling warm. One of the simplest and most ancient forms of these cooling contraptions is the hand fan. A hand fan can be virtually made from anything that is stiff enough to create a surface that produces the wind when waved back and forth. The wind produced by the fan lets sweat on skin evaporate, and draws in cooler air that regulates the body’s warmer temperature. 

Usually, these fans are designed in the shape of a circular sector, which sometimes can fold back into itself by being connected to a form of pivot that extends to flaps with ridges. While they are part of many cultures around the world, these kinds of fans are distinctly associated with Japanese culture, as it is often matched with traditional Japanese garb, such as a kimono.

The History Behind Hand Fans in Japan

Hand fans have been used for centuries, notably throughout East Asia and Europe. China has had ancient artifacts of fans dated as far back as 2nd century BCE, constructed out of woven bamboo. The Japanese rendition of the fan is directly connected to and influenced by Chinese fans, as the Japanese borrowed many cultural factors from their neighbors across the East China Sea. The kinds of fans that had particularly obvious Chinese roots are those that are made of silk and are oval-shaped. 

While most may think of fans as nothing but an instrument to cool one’s body with, culture in Japan saw it as much more than that. It was used to communicate feelings and emotions, as a status symbol, a form of art, and was a total must-have for almost everyone in society. 

A Japanese Novelty

The oldest fans in Japan presumably existed from around the 6th century, as they were depicted in paintings decorated on tombs. While fans stayed flat, wide, and unwieldy (these fans were called “uchiwa”) for most other countries, Japan was responsible for birthing it's more portable version; the folding fan (ogi). The window of centuries that the folding fan was invented ranges from 500 to 800 A.D. It was initially named after a dress worn by court women called “Akome”, thus the fan was labeled “Akomeogi”, written as “衵扇”. 

Trade and Literature

Japanese hand fans would become notably present in important pieces of literature during the Heian period (The Pillow Book, The Tale of Genji), as well as literature pertaining to other societies the Japanese would intermingle with. In one example, an ancient Chinese historical work called “The History of Song”, also known as “Song Sui” tells a story of Chonen, a Japanese monk, who offered the emperor of China 20 “hiogi”, or wooden-bladed folding fans, and 2 “kawahori”, or paper fans. This was recorded to have happened in the year 988.

The trend of creating these folding fans eventually reached Korea, where they added their own flair and designs to it. Korean diplomats would also end up giving these folding fans as gifts to the Chinese court by the 11th century. Folding fans would also progress to become extremely popular in China around the Ming Dynasty. 

By the 16th century, trades between the Japanese and Portuguese opened a hungry market for these folding fans in Europe, as it spread quickly across the western continent. This is evident in its usage in Spain’s unique Flamenco Dance. Currently, Shinto priests and even some Geisha still use these fans to accompany their formal traditional Japanese clothes during a ceremony. 

The Variations in Craft of Japanese Hand Fans

There are two basic categories when it comes to hand fans; the “uchiwa”, or those that fold, and “ogi” or “sensu”; those that don’t fold. Though the fan industry was more associated with women and femininity, both men and women did use it. In fact, men used it in war, so much so that there’s an extra category that belongs to fans that were used specifically for war purposes.

Uchiwa Fans

Commonly known to have Chinese roots, and is used as ceremonial fans in other Asian countries is the uchiwa fan. It is supposed to be one of the easiest of fans to make, consists of slices of bamboo sticks that make up the skeleton of the fan, particularly into the shape of a circle. This is further draped with either washi paper or silk. Because of its unwieldiness to bring around, these kinds of fans are often kept at home.

Ogi Fans

Long ago, Japanese cypress, called “hinoki” in Japanese, was primarily used in creating vintage ogi types of fans, in combination with threads of silk. Your rank determined how many strips of wood would be placed in the fan. Eventually, crafters would get more imaginative with the materials used in fan production (especially with the Japanese dancing fan or “Mai Ogi”), creating fans that had slats produced from sandalwood, tortoise shells, bone, ivory, mother of pearl mica, with innumerable designs on different kinds of fabric and paper.

War Fans

The Japanese war fan was wielded primarily by the samurai that existed before the Edo period. Each war fan was different; but the entire category of war fans had two main purposes – to be used as a weapon, and/or to be used as a signaling device. To summarize it, there are three types of Japanese war fans: the Gunsen, the Tessen, and the Gunbai. 

Tessen fans were made to look like innocent ogi fans but were constructed from iron plates. Some of them have sharp spokes on the ends of each plate. Tessen fans were made to be used as a foldable concealed weapon. If a samurai had to enter an area without his arms, he could have this item with him in case of an emergency attack. The tessen, when properly used, can wound in both short range and long-range attacks (it can be thrown), and at the same time deflect incoming blades. If the samurai happened to be in the water, the tessen fan can act as a paddle to help the user swim.

Gunsen fans were also ogi fans that were created from brass, wood, or bronze, but were used by warriors for fanning more rather than for violent purposes. Unlike the tessen, gunsen were carried by lower ranking warriors compared to the samurai. Design-wise, gunsen fans also had spokes, but those spokes were made of lighter and thinner iron than the tessen fans. 

Gunbai fans are the most unique among the war fans, as they were of the uchiwa type. These fans were carried by officers who held high posts, as they would use for command issuance (commanders would wave it in certain directions as signals to his troops), a shade against the hot sun, or as an arrow barrier. Gunbai was made from either wooden-cored metal, iron, or just wood.

What Were Japanese Fans Used For?

Aside from being used as something to lower one’s body temperature, one who is educated in the ways and culture of Japanese during more traditional periods would be able to tell what the meaning behind a certain fan is. 

It’s a given that these fans were used for war as well, but other than that, they were used as an accessory to ceremonies, to help one decipher someone’s social status, to work as a means of nonverbal communication, to emphasize theatrical actions played out in Japanese theater skits such as the Noh and Kabuki, and to be given as symbolic gifts. 

Fans in Japan and What They Symbolize

Japanese fans can and do symbolize many concepts. One of them is prosperity, because of the amount of space that the fan suddenly covers, the other is birth and the many paths of life (represented by the spread of different slats as the fan is opened). The colors used by the fans are also determinants as to what they symbolize. Fans that carry a rich hue of gold connote wealth, while fans adorned in white and red colors are supposed to attract luck. 

Designs that were often painted on fans include plants, flowers, and animals. The Japanese also attach meanings to the kinds of flowers used in symbols, so you can’t just put any flower on the fan and expect it to mean the same as other flowers. Cherry blossoms, for example, represent the love shared between children and their mother and father. Chrysanthemums connote having a long life, as each petal represents a year.

In terms of plants, the symbol of endurance is the bamboo, as well as the pine. A flax plant shows confidence in being straight, solid, and tall, which many parents will their child to become. The use of symbolic animals also varies greatly, no matter how similar the animals may be. A lion is used to mean strength. A tiger isn’t too far behind in relation to the lion in the animal kingdom, but once you see a tiger on a fan, it means war.

Sensitivity to the different meanings each symbol may carry is crucial, especially if you plan to give a Japanese fan as a gift. For example, you may think it’s romantic to give your partner a fan with two birds together, as that correctly relates to a couple in love. However, if those birds are black, then you’re giving your sweetheart a fan that is symbolizing the concept of evil. Perhaps it’s safer to stick to roses – which still do lean to the romantic ideas attached to them.

Japanese Fans: Fast Facts

Did you know that the designs that were previously mentioned are frequently painted in amounts of odd numbers, most popularly groups of 5, as that number is considered luckiest? Furthermore, regardless of what gender you were or what class you belonged to, it was almost mandatory to have a fan, had you been living in Japan hundreds of years ago. Men sported large fans that had plain designs and colors, while women had smaller fans decorated with intricate imagery.

DIY: How to Make Your Own Set of Japanese Fans

It is quite easy to make your own decorative Japanese fan. Dozens of DIY tutorials are available online for those who would prefer an audio-visual guide, however, the steps are relatively short and quick to follow, especially if you have everything you need ready. 

The items you’ll need are 10 evenly-measured sticks (used as the slats), something to puncture a small hole in each slat (a thumbtack can do the job), pliers, a pin, scissors, plain paper/fabric, decorated paper/fabric, strong glue, a compass, and an option tassel/accessory.

  1. Lay out the slats, and puncture a hole in the bottom of each slat, in the exact same place. The hole should be snug enough to hug the pin that you will pass through these holes. 
  2. Insert the pin. Once it’s in and all the slats are aligned, coil the pin, and flatten it down to secure it in place. 
  3. Draw a small arc on the edge of the plain fabric (4 inches on your compass), which makes way for your slate. Align those slats evenly on the empty space, with half of each slat touching the fabric.
  4. Trace the sticks in place, forming an outline.
  5. Remove the sticks, add glue, and put them back in their outlined positions on the plain fabric.
  6. Cut the excess plain fabric off.
  7. Repeat the same process with the plain fabric as you do with the decorated fabric; cut another (smaller) arc, using the measurement of 3.5 inches on your compass.
  8. Add glue to the hinges of the fan, and place the fan on top (back side of the design facing you) and cut out a piece of decorated fabric.
  9. Cleanly cut out the edges, but leaving an extra fold on the ends of your last sticks so you may fold them inwards, securely fastening the fabric/paper onto the skeleton of your fan. 
  10. Lastly, fold the fan, creating ridges in the paper.
  11. Add the final touches, like the tassel and accessory to the bottom of the fan. 

Feel free to frame the final product, hang it on your wall, or sell it to an interested customer. Fan-making can be a fun, stress-free hobby for any person who is into crafts.

The Best Places to Find Great Japanese Fans for Sale

You can find traditional Japanese fans being sold in most souvenir stores you will come across, but a brand that stands out is Ibasen, as they’ve been making fans for 500 years. The price of a 21 cm-long fan in Ibasen costs 3,150 JPY, while one that is 18 cm costs 2,940 JPY. Having been in the business so long, you could say it’s worth it, having perfected their craft.

The address of Ibasen : 4-1 Nihonbashi-Kobunacho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Tokyo.