In olden days these were considered an essential accessory by both sexes and every level of society. They were used to keep cool, to fan a fire, to carry love letters or religious texts, to shade the eyes or to pass a signal to an army.
There are two main kinds:
The flat fan or uchiwa is thought to have been originally introduced from Korea. Fans of this type are often carried at festivals and are frequently given as advertising gifts by companies who know they will be appreciated in the hot, humid Japanese summer.
If you have ever watched sumo you will have seen a special version of this fan known as a gumbai uchiwa which is used by the gyoji (referee). This is derived from the war fans used by generals to command their armies - and even as a weapon.
The folding fan, sensu, or ogi seems to have been a Japanese invention, which originated in Kyoto about 670 AD. It is made of paper and bamboo. Those made with white paper were used by the aristocracy to inscribe love poems and the fan was then presented to the beloved; devoted Buddhists used the same fans to inscribe Sutras, so that they were always at hand.
As well as being a more practical fan, on ceremonial occasions when wearing Japanese clothes, no person can be considered properly dressed unless carrying a sensu. The Sensu is always used in Japanese dances such as kagura, noh, kabuki etc., is carried by singers of classical Japanese songs, such as nagauta, gidayu etc, and is used to great effect in rakugo (comic story telling) where it is used to represent objects from chop-sticks to swords.
If you live in the UK there is a Fan Museum in Greenwich, London which includes Japanese fans in its huge collection. And you can buy fans on the web from the Japanese Toys & Goods shop.
Return to John & Jeannette's home page Return to MCW home page Return to Sussex Japan Society home page