Japanese Culture and the Use of Fans

  • Japan is a great country full of rich history, futuristic innovation, world-class food, spectacular landscapes, and ancient traditions that have stood the test of time. If someone mentions Japan, no doubt it conjures up many images in your mind. This may include Mt. Fuji, cherry blossom season, the towering skyscrapers of Tokyo, or perhaps even anime and manga. Do you also think of women clad in Japanese kimonos holding an umbrella or a fan? What do these fans symbolise and what is their history?

    The folding Japanese fan is very important in the culture of the Japanese society. Even though a fan is conventionally meant to provide a cool breeze during hot weather, these fans can also be seen to be associated with some traditional dance forms and other cultural aspects of Japan. It is one of the best souvenirs that you can bring from Japan as they are beautiful and practical. A folding fan is called a “sensu” or “o-gi”, while the non-folding type of fan is called an “uchiwa”. Both of these fans have Japanese calligraphy writing or beautiful patterns decorating them.

    Here is a little information about Japanese fan symbolism, history, meaning, some interesting facts, and what purpose they serve in traditional and modern Japanese society.

    Sensu or Ougi: the folding fans

    The folding fan was invented in Japan between the 6th and 9th centuries. These fans are traditionally made of wooden narrow strips and washi paper or silk is used in between them. The traditional fan always uses washi paper, which is also used in traditional sliding doors. The fans that are made of silk are considered the most precious.

    There was a fan named “hi-o-gi” or the “court fan” with special wood and silk stitching; such fans were considered the symbol of a high social status. Nowadays, various types of sensu are available at different price rates. We can find fans made of paper and wood at 100 yen shops as well. Most of these fans have cute patterns and pictures on them. The traditional pictures like cherry blossoms often appear on these fans since they tend to be the most popular.

    The main advantage of these sensu fans is that they are handy and can be carried with you always. It consumes only a small space inside your bag and hence can be used at any place while traveling. 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 at a length of around 20cm are meant for women and those at a length of 23cm or more should be used for men.

    Uchiwa: Non folding fans

    The traditional “uchiwa” fans are the non-folding type. Since it can’t be folded like a sensu, it is not as handy for portable use. It is commonly used inside houses or offices and you can often see them tucked into kimonos. The makers 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. Some of them have wooden handles as well. These types of fans are now used by various organizations, shops, companies, and so on as a means of advertising in crowdy areas during the summer season. It is a great way to get a free uchiwa fan and keep cool in the hot weather!

    We can see plastic uchiwa fans with advertisements on them distributed at summer festivals, in front of shopping malls, on the street and more. These are usually free, so be sure to grab one. In old Japan, large, open fans made of metal called “gunbai” were used by the army officials to give signals to the soldiers during battle. Therefore, these fans are closely related to customs and culture as well as the history of Japan.

    Symbolisms and beliefs associated with fans

    There is various symbolism in Japan associated with fans. The fan itself is a symbol of prosperity as it spreads out when we open it, similar to that of a blooming flower or the widening of wealth. 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 an odd number of pictures printed on it, as odd numbers are considered lucky. The colour and the pictures on a fan have particular meanings. Gold colored fans are believed to attract wealth while red and white ones are considered to be lucky colors. This is similar to the color symbolism of other items in Japan such as “maneki neko” cats and daruma dolls. The Japanese also used to give fans as gifts and souvenirs. Fans that are specially designed to be given at birthdays have pictures like chrysanthemums, cranes, and turtles to wish the person a long and lucky life.

    The pictures themselves also have their own symbolism and are considered to be important when thinking of the person you are purchasing the fan for. Bird pairs on a fan are the symbol of a loving couple. Ume flowers (plum blossoms) that are printed on a fan represent a new beginning, while cherry blossoms represent the love of parents. Cherry blossoms are also symbols of richness and good luck. Roses, pine trees, and such are used to express love while bamboo, pine, and others represent patience.

    A white horse represents mercy and a lion symbolizes strength. A koi carp is the representation of luck and long life. Two butterflies represent a 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. Blackbirds on a fan are the representation of evil.

    While you are in Japan, you might like to purchase a Japanese fan as a souvenir or for your own use. You may use it as a gift for people in either Japan or back in your country. Fans can be found at almost all souvenir shops while traveling across the country with various styles and patterns. 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!