Let’s Learn About Japanese Fans

Child with Japanese Fan

For most people in this day and age, a fan’s sole function is to move and cool the air around you to make you less hot. However, in Asian culture the concept of the fan is steeped in rich history. The history of the fan is ancient, literally! The oldest signs of fans can be seen in ancient Chinese records as well as visually represented in the wall paintings of the Ancient Egyptians.

In ancient Japan, they were first used as symbols to indicate people’s rank in society. They were also used as weapons and a place to write messages. In battles, they were used as signals to their soldiers and they are still to this day used in important ceremonies and rituals.

There are many different versions and we shall be exploring two today. First came the Uchiwa, which is believed to have been introduced to Japan from China in the Nara Period (710-794). The Sensu was thought to be created by accident in the Japanese Court in the 6-9th century. Japan then repays China the favor and introduces them to this new type of fan. Sharing is caring after all!

Uchiwa

The Uchiwa fan was brought to the Japanese court as gifts from the Chinese and Korean courts. They are rigid structures that do not fold. It is thought that they were made from big leaves and animal hair to begin with. Some were rectangular in shape, though now are created in a more rounded circular shape. They had many uses and their journey starts with exclusivity, for only nobility were allowed to use them. As well as being used in ceremonies they were used by the Chinese Imperial family to hide their faces in public.

Japanese Fan

Traditionally they were made from bamboo and paper. the bamboo as a single handle which was then carved into many sections creating a structure that could be glued on to paper.  Some believe the structure of the bamboo is symbolic to the path of life, beginning with the singular point of birth, journeying to the start of the many paths that life takes us to.

As the journey of time progressed hand-crafted bamboo Uchiwa began to be given as presents with colorful and beautifully decorated paper. In contemporary times they are often made with plastic and used as a summer accessory. Advertisements adorn the paper and are distributed in the street. But the pursuit of artistic excellence continues as they are stocked in shops dressed with plain white paper, waiting to be bought and decorated by children or adults.

With the passage of time, these rigid fans were replaced with the folding fan.

Before the Sensu was invented, there was the Ogi (invented approximately in 670AD). As paper was extremely expensive to make, scribes often wrote on slates of wood. Historical documents reveal that someone in court on a whim decided to tie the wooden slats at one end with string to keep them together in one place and as a result created the wooden folding fan, Ogi. They tended to be heavy though and not easy to carry.

Make Your Own Uchiwa Fan

What you will need:

  • Fly Swatter, the swat bit needs to be hand shaped or circular shaped
  • Scissors
  • Colouring Felt Tips
  • Pencil
  • Glue
  • White card A4
Japanese Fan DIY

Instructions:

  1. Fold your A4 white card in half. Cut down the fold.
  2. On one side of the card, place your fly swat in the middle. Draw a circle around it, but leaving the bottom as a flat edge. (See picture)
  3. Cut around this line and dispose of the rest of the paper.
  4. Draw a concave curve at the bottom of the flat part of the circle and shorten the sides in a curve. See picture for clarification. The shape you are drawing is like a stretched out ‘W’ but the middle upward point is concave instead of like an arrowhead.
  5. Now follow steps 2-4 again and repeat with the other side of A4 paper.
  6. Once you have both sides cut out, you can now decorate one side of each of the card pieces. These will make your fan once it is all stuck together. Why not explore Japanese paintings and fan designs with your children and get them to replicate one with their felt tip pens.  
  7. Once their designs are complete, glue the back of your fans all over and press the fly swat into place. Make sure that the bottom bit is showing as this represents how the real Uchiwa fans are with the splaying out of bamboo. Now place the other side of the fan, plain side down on top of the fly swat and press down all over.
  8. Leave to dry.

Sensu

The folding fan was invented in the Japanese court between the 6-9th century. There is no one confirmed account of who created them, but a few challengers. One put forward is a hermit, while the other is Emperor Gosanjo (1069-1073AD), who in an attempt to save his favorite fan, stuck the cracking wooden slats onto paper.

Fans were not pieces of artwork initially. Indeed it was many centuries before it was considered an art form worth properly pursuing. In fact, these fans were actually supposed to only be opened when necessary. Their journey started as being tools to transport information for the aristocracy and for the use of the Samurai classes. They were used for recording maps, textbooks, prayers, calendars, letters, court announcements and so on. Women in court had specific folding fans that they had to carry depending on their social standing and marriage; a symbol of their rank.

Girl with Japanese Fan

From 15th-century centers of production all over Japan with professional fan painters and makers were being established. Japan began to be considered master artisans of the folding fan and was sought after for their quality and delicacy.

By the 15th century folding fans were being exported out of Japan in huge numbers. Carried along the Silk Road, exports reached Europe and gained momentum. By the 17th century Queen Elizabeth, I of England (Great Britain from 1707) can be spotted in paintings holding folding fans. By the 18th century ladies of all social standings carried them and by the 19th century, Impressionist painters scatter their paintings with women holding sensu type fans.

By the Victorian age in Britain, women had even created a fan language where different gestures indicated silent responses. And so the evolution of the fan continues both in Japan and beyond.  

Make Your Own Sensu Fan

What you will need:

  • Ice popsicle sticks x 5
  • A drawing pin
  • Cutting mat / surface you don’t mind scratching
  • Craft wire
  • Wire cutters/ sharp scissors
  • Glue
  • Black pen
  • Scissors
  • Patterned wrapping paper, cut to A4 size
Japanese Fan DIY

Instructions:

  1. Place a popsicle stick on your cutting mat. Put the point of the drawing pin at the end of one side, leaving enough space on each side. Hold the drawing pin down with one hand, pressing gently and with the other hand move the other end of the popsicle stick back and forward from one side to another. The friction of the point of the drawing pin will slowly create a hole in the stick. Do this again with each of the other popsicle sticks.
  2. When each one has a small hole in it, cut some wire and thread it through the holes, so that they are all stacked on top of each other. Leave enough room for them to move and then twist the wire off by wrapping it around each other. Make sure the ends are bent and safely twisted away so there are no pointy bits for little hands to hurt them on.
  3. Place your cut A4 sized card wrapping paper horizontally in front of you and draw a semi-circle at the bottom of it, directly in the center.
  4. Cut this out.
  5. Place you popsicle sticks on top of it, splaying them evenly out across the paper, making sure they are central to the semi-circle space you just cut out. With a pencil trace around each side of the popsicle sticks.
  6. Glue one side of all the popsicle sticks and then gently place them back onto each drawn out space and press them down.
  7. Leaving a 1.5 cm of wrapping paper on each end of your fan, cut the rest of the sides off.
  8. Gently cut around the top of the popsicle sticks, in a curve, to create a fan shape.
  9. Add a little glue on each side where you have left the margin of 1.5 cms. Fold this over each end popsicle stick.
  10. Now leave the fan to dry. This part is important as otherwise, you will rip the wrapping paper as it is wet with glue.
  11. Once it is dry you can fold your fan like an accordion. This means you need to fold ‘V’ shapes into the paper in between each popsicle sticks. Open and shut it to your heart’s content!

Extra for the Art History Fans:

The War Fans

In ancient Japan, fans were used in war and battle and can be spilt into three categories. The first is the tessen, the second gunpai, and the third gunsen.

Tessena folding fan used like a weapon when in situations where swords were not allowed. It was used to block darts or knives. Made from iron and steel, they were used by the Samurai class.

Gunpai – large open fan in the image of an open folding fan, made of heavy metal. They were used in war by high ranking officers to block arrows, signal their soldiers and even as a sunshade.

Gunsen – folding fans made from wood, brass or bronze, carried in their breastplates or belts and used for cooling down.

Girl with Japanese Fan

Fan and sword dancing

The Samurai were Japanese warriors that fought with swords. In the Heian period (794-1185), sword dances began to emerge. During the Meiji period, Samurai’s were forbidden and laws forbidding people to wear traditional Samurai dress, hair or carry swords was enforced. So these families, in the hope to keep the Samurai arts becoming extinct began to make their sword dances into performances for entertainment. Sakakibara Kenkichi created a company in 1872 to support just this. After World War II, those occupying Japan created a law forbidding the use of swords in their martial arts performances and so the birth of fan dancing began. By 1950s this ban was lifted and some now combine both styles to create a sword and fan dance.

So there you have it. Art History really can be fun. We have learned about a culture perhaps that is different to our own. Or perhaps not, depending on your location! We have learned that some art forms don’t actually start off as art forms, but evolve into them and like the circle of life will adapt to the modern age.

We hope you have learned something new and that enjoy taking part in the related crafts. Hopefully, it is the first of our Mini Art Explorer adventures together!

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Contributor
Grace Selous Bull is an arts education author and freelance blogger. Her book, ‘Potty About Pots: arts and crafts for home and school’ is aimed at children from 5-12 years old and takes them through a journey of ceramics through time. Her blog, The Rainbow Tree, explores all aspects of arts and crafts, and is aimed at children of all ages.  She is a full-time Mummy of two girls, both of whom love being creative, and is married to her husband, Andrew, who does not. Follow her on instagram and twitter.


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