Japanese Culture and the Use of Fans

  • When we hear about Japan, the first picture coming into our mind about the Japanese will be a lady in kimono holding a fan and an umbrella. The folding Japanese fan is very important in the culture of the Japanese society. Even though a fan is always meant to provide some cool during hot weather, the fans could be seen associated with the traditional dance forms and other cultural events in Japan. It is one of the best souvenirs that you can bring from Japan. The folding fan is called the Sensu or O-gi while the non-folding type of fan is called Uchiwa. Both of these fans have calligraphy or beautiful patterns decorating them.

    Sensu or Ougi: the folding fans

    These fans are made of wooden narrow strips and washi paper or silk is used in between them. The traditional fan always uses washi paper. But those made of silk are considered the most precious. There was a fan named Hi-o-gi or the court fan with special woods and silk stitching, such were considered the symbol of high social status. Nowadays, various types of Sensu are available at different price rates. We can find those made of paper and wood at a 100 yen shop also. Most of these fans have cute patterns and pictures on them. The traditional pictures like cherry blossoms often appear on these fans.

    The main advantage of these fans is that they are handy and can be carried with you always. It consumes only a small space inside your bag and hence could be used at any place while travelling. It is usually the Sensu type of fans used in Japanese dance forms like Kabuki, Nihon Buyo etc. These types of colourful sensu fans are called the Maiogi. There is another kind of Sensu used in tea ceremonies. There are sensu fans of various sizes ones meant for men and others for women. It is considered that the fans of length around 20cm are meant for women and those having length of 23cm or more should be used for men.

    Uchiwa : Non folding fans

    Uchiwa fan on Tatami mat

    The traditional Uchiwa fans are the non-folding type. Since it can’t be folded like a Sensu, it is not so handy for portable use. It is commonly used inside houses or offices. They also make a use of the narrow wooden pieces like bamboo strips to make the skeleton, and paper or silk is often used on top to cover it. It has a wooden handle as well. These types of fans are now used by various organizations, shops, companies and etc. as the means of advertising in crowdy areas during the summer season. We can see plastic Uchiwa fans with adds distributed at summer festivals, in front of shopping malls, on the street and etc. In early Japan, large, open fans made of metal called Gunbai were used by the army officials to give signals to the soldiers during war. Thus, fans are closely related to customs and culture as well as the history of Japan.

    Symbolisms and beliefs associated with fans

    There are various symbolisms in Japan related to fans. The fan itself is the symbol of prosperity as it spreads out when we open it. As the fan starts from a single point and the wooden strips go out to various directions, they are considered to resemble the various paths leading us through life after the single point of birth. Usually, the fans with patterns have the odd number of patterns printed on it, as the odd numbers are considered lucky. The colour and the pictures on a fan have particular meanings. Gold coloured fans are believed to attract wealth while red and white ones are considered as lucky colours. Japanese used to give fans as gifts and souvenirs. The birthday fans have pictures like the chrysanthemums, crane, turtles and etc. to wish longevity.

    Bird pairs on a fan are the symbol of a loving couple. Ume flowers printed on a fan represent a new beginning, while cherry blossoms represent love of parents. Cherry blossoms also are the symbols of richness and good luck. Roses, pine trees and such are used to express love while bamboo, pine and others represents patience. White horse represents mercy and a lion symbolizes strength. Koi fish is the representation of luck, and long life. Two butterflies represent happy marriage while one butterfly represents a vain woman. Single butterfly patterns can’t be used on fans or other items related to marriage as it symbolizes a variable mind. Black birds on a fan are the representation of evil. While you are in Japan, obviously you will own a Japanese fan as a souvenir or for own use. You may use it as a gift for people in either Japan or back in your country. Fans can be found at all the souvenir shops while travelling across the country. When buying fans, take a look at the symbols and patterns on them to identify the meaning behind it, and be careful when selecting one!