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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.

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