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History Of The Hand Fan: The Japanese edition

The history of the Japanese hand fan is a beautiful and cultural piece of the past. The hand fan is a huge part of both Japanese culture and design, with its unique evolution and use of exquisite materials, there is a lot to learn about how far the hand fan has come. Let’s take a trip into the past to find out more about the colourful history of the hand fan.

The many shapes and styles of hand fan

Originally used by Samurai and Japanese aristocrats, the Japanese hand fan had a variety of uses. Fans were regularly used as a means of communicating, a symbol of status and also as a weapon. The first origins of the hand fan were in the style of a court fan and were referred to as ‘Akomeogi’ after the court women’s dress named ‘Akome’. Since then, the hand fan has had many adaptations but the most traditional and popular hand fans are the Uchiwa fan, the Sensu fan and the War fan.
Although the Uchiwa fan is a type of Japanese hand fan, it is thought to have originated from China. The form of this fan is flat and rigid and is traditionally used as a fan or for interior and decorative purposes. The Uchiwa fan has a small circular frame consisting of sliced bamboo and is complemented by stretched silk or washi paper that incorporates beautiful and intricate Japanese designs.
The Sensu fan is the most traditional form of Japanese hand fan. Although this fan has a basic shape and structure, there are many variations of its style including the Court fan, Chasen fan and Maiougi fan which are all made from a variety of materials and hold different meanings.
Interestingly, fans were traditionally used in Japan for warfare as both a signalling device and a weapon. War fans took on a similar structure to the more commonly recognised traditional fans with the exception of a metal covering and outer spokes for durability and use as a weapon.

The origin of the hand fan

The Japanese hand fan is said to have been invented somewhere between the 6th and 9th century. The earliest visual depiction of the hand fan was actually found in ancient Japanese burial tombs from the 6th century whilst the earliest literary references to hand fans came a little later in the 10th century.
Japanese fans became so popular after the 11th century that laws were passed to restrict the decorations used on the paper of the fans. Laws were also put in place that stated the number of strips of wood on each fan should reflect the rank and or status of the owner. By the 15th century, Japan began to export their fans to China and across Europe, through trade and the silk road. The hand fan showed its true popularity by the 18th and 19th century where many European women from a variety of social classes carried a folding fan with them in their day to day life.

Modern-day hand fan makers

Modern-day hand fans take on a much more simplistic use than they have done in the centuries gone by. Used either as a way to keep cool or for decorative purposes, the hand fan has changed vastly in terms of purpose since its creation. Fans that made their way out of Japan and into the modern day market did so as a result of political and economic changes which led Japanese craftsmen to begin tailoring their skills and goods to meet demand in Western markets.
Today, Japanese fans are still as popular and desirable as they were thousands of years ago. They are now often displayed as works of art in homes, businesses and traditional temples and also make unique and individual gifts for those interested in Japanese culture and design. With so many materials and processes used when making hand fans, there really is something to suit everyone.
At Atelier Japan, we believe in making the most of the finest of Japanese products and heightening the Japanese experience for customers, that’s why we work with one of the oldest traditional fan makers in Japan, Komaruya, who continue to lead the industry with their pieces that showcase incredible quality, technique and beauty. Go online to view our range of Japanese products, from fans to fine jewellery, sake bottles to silverware, we have a piece of Japanese culture for everyone.

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The Art of the Fan

The Japanese folding fan, sensu or ougi, in true Japanese fashion, has become a symbol of beauty and respect. It is believed to have been invented between the sixth and ninth centuries in Japan, inspired by those used in China, and was originally operated as one would expect; to cool the holder of the fan down.
The folding fan first appeared as a court fan, Akomeogi, deriving its name from Akome, a court-woman’s dress, and after first only being used by the emperor and empress, was the staple accompaniment of any noblewoman. Made with thin strips of Japanese cypress, hinoki, tied together with thread, how many strips of wood a fan had was directly correlated to the status of the holder. In modern times, fans are used as a token of friendship and goodwill and do not relate to social status, having become an art form in and of itself to be admired and often used as decoration in a house to create positive energy. Non-foldable fans, uchiwa, were mainly used in war, however they were then made of metal and were used by army generals to give signals during battle. Today, these fans are often given by stores for free as adverts in festivals or used in these festivals as decoration and to cool oneself down, as well as ornaments in homes.

Symbolism of the Fan

There are many different symbolisms that fans can have. The folding fan is sometimes interpreted to represent a flower blooming as it unfolds and spreads out, and therefore represents prosperity. If a fan is patterned, it will most likely have an odd number of pictures, as in Japanese culture odd numbers are lucky. As well as this, the colours used in fans have particular meanings; gold is meant to bring wealth, while white and red are considered to be lucky colours. Specific flowers and animals can represent long life, and fans are often given as gifts at birthdays and other events to wish this goodwill upon the receiving party. A couple of examples of specific meanings of pictures are two birds to symbolise a couple, and sakura (cherry blossom) which represents the love of parents as well as wealth and good fortune.

Geisha and the Fan

Kyoto is perhaps most prominently known for its thriving culture, past and present, of Geisha, the highly-skilled traditional entertainers whose use of the fan in their captivating dancing has delighted audiences for centuries. Geisha use fans as a way of expressing themselves and they are often critical elements in their dances. The first Geishas appeared in the eighteenth century as dancers and shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese guitar) players, and although modern Geisha are very different from their previous counterparts, much of the rituals and tradition still remain, despite playing a smaller part in Japanese society than before. There is still much mystery surrounding the culture of Geisha; young trainees, usually aged 14 or 15, must train and work for five years before reaching the status of maiko, then train for more years before becoming a geiko, a full Geisha. Geisha live in an all-female house called an okiya, run by the okasan, which literally translates to mother but here means proprietress of the house. Each geisha must be proficient in certain skills; playing the shamisen, dancing, hospitality and other talents. More so in previous years, the fan was used to cover a geisha’s face in an act of purposeful shyness, while using the eyes emotively to portray a sense of mystery and enticement. Fans could be held in many ways to show different feelings.

Fans in Dancing

In ritual dances, the folding fan plays a large part in movement and expression and is opened and folded in choreographed timings. At an engagement involving Geisha, you would probably see Nihon buyo (Japanese dance), a centuries-old art form exclusively meant for performances on stage, taking its origins from Kabuki and Noh, which are traditional forms of Japanese theatre. Since Japanese fans have ornate and beautifully detailed designs, the fan dances were choreographed so that those watching would be drawn to this design. The earliest recorded fan dance performances come from the era of the reign of Emperor Jimmu. The fan was not necessarily easy to dance with, but with the colours often picked to compliment the those of the dancers’ kimono, as well as the hair accessories and bold makeup, they became an essential prop to create a stunning and memorable performance. In previous years, the dances incorporated slow but deliberate action, using the fan to emphasise movement and suggestion, but in modern times, fan dances are often choreographed to recorded music, since western culture has influenced Japan over recent years.

Exploring the Art of the Fan on Atelier Japan

Our fans have been beautifully crafted in traditional style by Komaruya, a centuries-old and well-respected company whose great attention to detail and quality in each fan marks them apart from other fan-makers in Kyoto. Made from traditional materials of bamboo and fine paper, they are the perfect ornament for your home or as a special gift.