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Fans have a long historical past in Japan and for good reason, many legends agree that it is the country par excellence of the modern folding fans that we know today.

Arrival of fans in Japan

Origin of Japanese fans

The first traces of fans in Japan date back to Fukuoka in the 6th century AD. Mural paintings dating from this age were found on a mound, they represented a Chinese style fan.

Indeed, even if it may go against the grain of universal thought, fans are not objects of Japanese but Chinese origin. They were imported from China during the Han dynasty period when China still had a strong influence on the Japanese aristocratic court. There were originally two different types of fans:

  • The tuan shan : These are the ancestors of the folding fans that we know today. These are the ones that have been adopted almost everywhere in the world because they are considered more effective and more practical than the bian mian. However, there are many other families of foldable fans that we will see later.
  • Bian mian : This type of fan, also called “screen fan”, has a fairly rigid surface coupled with a handle which allows the whole thing to be shaken. Although they are mostly abandoned today in favor of folding fans, they were very popular during the times of the Chinese and Japanese courts.

In the family of folding fans we find three main types of fans, those with feathers, classic folding fans and finally broken folding fans. Most of them have legends about their origins and although it is now proven that the fan was imported from China, it is always fun to listen to the mystical folklores of Japanese stories.


Myths and legends about the origin of fans in Japan

The first legend explains the origin of broken Japanese folding fans . These are fans which, unlike having a plain canvas, have a set of slats generally made of wood which are attached at their end to be able to open the fan. This legend is quite brief. She simply tells us that the first craftsman to have created such a fan was a Japanese official who, having fun at court stacking objects made of wood and ivory, made without even knowing it the very first draft of this traditional object: a mokkan (ancestor of the broken folding Japanese fan).

The second legend tells us about the origin of classic folding fans, that is to say with a canvas which serves as the main element to make wind. It would therefore be a certain Toyomaru, resident of the province of Tamba, who would have had the idea of ​​creating this object after seeing the outstretched wings of a bat during the reign of Empress Jingū (209 -269).

Finally, the last legend which alludes to the origin of fans in Japan is a little more crazy. It is said to be the widow of a great samurai, Taira Atsumori, who had the idea of ​​folding fans after using folding paper during an incantation intended to heal an abbot.

To conclude, none of these legends really seem to convince us as to the real origin of fans. It is very likely that they were invented in order to provide an explanation for the origin of the latter which, as we will see, subsequently became very popular objects at court. However, history has finally caught up with the myths and today we can affirm that even if the use of the fan was more important at the Japanese court than at the Chinese court, it is indeed in China that we owe the invention of fans.

First literary reference to fans in Japan

As we have just seen, the native land of fans is China. However, the first literary traces that refer to fans happen to be Japanese. This is a dictionary dating from the beginning of the 10th century which mentions two types of fans, the ogi and the uchiwa . They are both quite classic folding fans. Other texts dating from the 10th century will then mention fans in China when one of these fans was offered to the court as a gift.


The democratization of fans in Japan

Although fans were used from the 10th century, it was not until the 12th century that they became popular at the Japanese court and the 15th century for the Chinese court. But for many decades it remained a very noble object which was used for the main purpose of giving itself a refined style and was rarely used for its primary function: to refresh.

The Edo period

Although fans continued to become popular in Japan over the centuries. It was really only from the end of the Edo period (1690-1868) when Japan opened up to the rest of the world that fan craftsmanship developed significantly. This naturally resulted in a greater production of fans in the territory, but above all a production of superior quality and it was this which gradually built the reputation that Japan enjoys today for its fan makers .

On the other hand, where fans remained figurative objects in China, they became real symbolic objects in Japan, elegantly representing the rays of the Sun when it is open.


The end of Japanese isolation

If fans took so long to become popular within the country it is because it was in a period of isolation for a long time, around 250 years. Ships were in fact prohibited from leaving the territory in 1641 and none were allowed to enter the Japanese coast either. With the exception of Chinese and Dutch merchant ships. It was not until 1853 that Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry's military ships docked in Japan. At the same time, the Japanese people glimpsed what culture and the world beyond their own borders were like for the first time.

The Meiji Imperial Restoration which took place 15 years later in 1868 marked a decisive turning point for Japan, but at the same time for its traditional fan craftsmanship. These objects were in fact discovered in Europe and America and Japan then received a strong demand for fans from these hitherto unknown countries.

After the economic and political opening of the country, Japanese fan artisans were forced to adapt. Consequently, they innovated and reworked their art in depth to be able to offer the rest of the world pieces that they had never made before. These fans were welcomed with open arms in Western cultures and many fans were exported.

Generally speaking, this opening of the country due to the Meiji Restoration was very beneficial to the fan market for at least three reasons. First, it allowed Japan to build a solid reputation globally for its quality products. Second, the strong demand that Japan experienced was extremely profitable for it economically. Finally, fan makers innovated in the design of their fans and took this object from a rather decorative, disposable status to a truly durable piece, refined and worked down to the smallest details.

The influence of ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e is an artistic movement specific to Japanese prints and it turns out that it contributed to the development of Japanese fans within the territory. Indeed, many paintings represented fans during the Edo period and the Meiji period and this influenced the people to the point of encouraging them massively to buy these objects which were then still only figurative.


The different types of fans

As mentioned above, there are two main types of fans that are quite distinct, folding fans and screen fans. Among the foldable fans we mainly find those with a canvas, those made of feathers and finally those which we call “broken fans” to talk about its blades which are not directly linked to each other.

The Hiogi fan

The main fan that was most used at the Japanese court happened to be the hiogi fan. It is a fan made of cypress wood which is characterized by its large number of wooden planks which compose it, between 34 and 38, and which are all connected together by a metal clip. This metal clip often takes the shape of a butterfly on the front of the fan and a bird shape on its back. Only the empress's fan had a clip made of string and paper to make touching the fan even more pleasant. Finally, the canvas of the fan was decorated with traditional motifs such as chrysanthemums, birds or cherry blossoms. Do not hesitate to consult the article on hanakotoba if you want to learn more about the meaning of the flowers.


The Gunsen fan

The gunsen , also called tessen , is a fan that has nothing to do with the hiogi or even other types of fans since it is a fan used in war zones. It was in fact used by generals, samurai or court officials as a means of signaling in a hostile area. It was made of twelve wooden planks reinforced by a metal plate and contained a precise indication on its main side. If you are interested in war fans, do not hesitate to consult our article on samurai weapons , you will find in number 9 a description of the tessen , another war fan which was used to camouflage a weapon in one's equipment.

Many other fans still exist such as the gampi uchiwa which is a fan derived from the military sector used for sumo wrestling. The rikiu ogi is a fan used during the tea ceremony to serve cakes. Finally, there are even many fans intended for use during theatrical performances such as at the Noh theater or the Chukei theater.


Thus we see very clearly that the fan is an object which has become democratized throughout the territory and which has been adopted in all layers of Japanese society. It has also become a very common gift for occasions such as a wedding, a birth or the New Year. Even if it remains a very feminine object in the West, the fan is also very popular with men in Japan. These small objects imported from China 1500 years ago were basically simple bamboo planks tied together and today many very detailed and very refined pieces have been designed by artisans. They also go very well with accessories from all cultures like bracelets or even a hand of Fatma necklace .

To conclude, it would not be an exaggeration to say that fans are objects that are an integral part of traditional Japanese culture. They have been able to evolve with it and its traditions, crossing all social strata over time and thus becoming an object of refinement in their own right which has at the same time been able to seduce the rest of the world.


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