“Uchiwa” and ”Sensu”: Japanese Fans
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“Uchiwa” and ”Sensu”: Japanese Fans

Aug 09, 2023

Japan Glances

The quintessential Japanese hand fans, uchiwa and sensu, can be used all year round, but they are most often seen in summer. As well as creating a cooling breeze, these fans can act as a stylish accessory when wearing kimono and yukata at bon odori dances, firework displays, and summer matsuri (festivals). Sensu folding fans are particularly popular among overseas tourists, being a standard Japanese souvenir. In recent years, people may also be seen commuting with a small portable electric fan in hand.

Flat fans (known as uchiwa in Japanese) have been used in China since the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC–256 BC). They were introduced into Japan from China and have been found at archeological sites dating from the Kofun period (ca. 300–710). It is said that people of high status used uchiwa to conceal their faces to preserve their dignity and also to ward off evil spirits and insects. Relics at the Shōsōin treasure house within the grounds of Nara’s Tōdaiji temple and the temple of Kōryūji in Kyoto also suggest that uchiwa were used by the imperial court and nobility during the Nara (710–794) and Heian periods (794–1185).

A woman wafting an uchiwa. (© Pixta).

In the twelfth-century picture scroll Yamai no sōshi (Diseases and Deformities), a low-ranking samurai is depicted holding an uchiwa-shaped fan made with leaves from the Chinese fan palm. At the time, many of the fans in use were round in shape and uchiwa (団扇), which combines characters meaning “round” and “fan,” became the established name for them. In the turbulent Warring States period (1467–1568), the uchiwa-shaped military fans made from leather or iron known as gunbai were used for signaling in war.

From the Edo period (1603–1868) onward, fans made with a bamboo frame, covered in paper, and decorated with a picture, became common. Elaborate nishiki-e woodblock prints or pictures of kabuki actors were used. Some ukiyo-e artworks created at this time depicted women holding uchiwa in the cool of the evening. Uchiwa became an integral part of everyday life. Sometimes silk was used instead of paper. Shibu-uchiwa, made by coating the paper with kakishibu (persimmon tannin) to make it more durable, were used by ordinary people for starting fires. Even now, uchiwa may be used for grilling yakitori and eel or for cooling down sushi rice.

An uchiwa being used to start a fire. (© Pixta)

Japan’s three top uchiwa are said to be the kyō-uchiwa, marugame-uchiwa, and bōshū-uchiwa. Kyō-uchiwa, so named because they are made in Kyoto, are characteristic for their thin ribs radiating out across the surface of the fan and a handle that is made separately and then attached. Marugame-uchiwa get their name from being produced in the city of Marugame, Kagawa, using bamboo from Ehime, paper from Kōchi, and glue from Tokushima, so all the materials are sourced from the four prefectures of Shikoku. The bamboo used is known as otokodake (madake bamboo) and a single thick cane is cut and split flat at the top to form the handle and fan frame. Bōshū-uchiwa, from the Minamibōsō area in Chiba, are made using the thinner canes of the onnadake (simon bamboo), giving a rounder shape.


A marugame-uchiwa. (Courtesy Marugame Tourist Association)

A bōshū-uchiwa. (Courtesy Minamibōsō Photo Bank)

Modern-day uchiwa are made from various materials, including cloth and plastic. These days, people might use them when cheering at concerts or watching sports. They are even handed out by businesses to promote sales.

Sensu folding fans originated in Japan during the early Heian period, in around the ninth century, and were known as ōgi, a type of fan that could be folded up and carried easily. They were initially used by men in the imperial court instead of paper to make notes on about etiquette. Gradually, these ōgi became more colorful and pictures were added to them. Women in the court began using them too, leading to them becoming more of a decorative accessory. People would draw pictures or write waka poems on them, appreciating them as art, while others would dedicate them to the gods and Buddha. Ōgi are mentioned in The Pillow Book, written in the late tenth century, and also in the “Yūgao” chapter of The Tale of Genji. They began being used in Shintō ceremonies, sadō tea ceremony and buyō or traditional dance. Following that, a style of ōgi known as kawahori-ōgi was created using a bamboo frame and covered with paper on one side, similar to the modern sensu. These kinds of fans are useful as they can be carried easily, folding up to fit into a bag or pocket.

Kyoto is one of the main production areas for these folding fans and a special type is made there, known as kyō-sensu. These are made from bamboo and covered with either paper or silk, and then decorated using gold and silver leaf or a maki-e lacquer technique. They have long been highly prized as works of art. Aimed mainly at women, they come in a wide range of types including mai-ōgi for use in traditional dance, as well as other uses such as for making greetings during tea ceremonies and weddings. There are said to be up to 87 steps in the process for making these fans and the traditional method is preserved by dividing up labor among a number of artisans.

Kyō-sensu. (© Pixta)

Nagoya is another area on a par with Kyoto for production of folding fans, making its own Nagoya-sensu. Whereas the sensu in Kyoto are mainly for women, the Nagoya ones are regarded more as functional items for men.

Nagoya-sensu with a design based on tiger art from the Honmaru Palace, Nagoya Castle. (Courtesy Suehirodō)

In Tokyo, there are Edo-sensu, referring to the folding fans that were originally sold in Edo, the former name for the capital. They are made using 15 thick, sturdy bamboo ribs and feature simple, bold patterns.

Edo-sensu featuring The Great Wave off Kanagawa by ukiyo-e artist Hokusai. (Courtesy Ibasen)

In the world of rakugo storytelling performances, the two essential props are a sensu and a tenugui or hand towel. In the hands of the performer, the sensu can play the role of chopsticks, scissors, a pen, and more. Sensu are also used in traditional Japanese performing arts such as kyōgen and nō theater and buyō.

Rakugo performer San’yūtei Hōraku uses the sensu to represent a container of sake he drinks from during one of his stories. Taken at the Asakusa Tōyōkan theater in Tokyo. (© Jiji)

Around 2017, handheld electric fans saw a spike in popularity across Asia and the trend quickly spread to Japan through social media. People like these fans because they are light to carry and affordable, and it is possible to adjust the speed of the airflow. Many different types can be found in stores, including ones that can be worn around the neck, those that convert from handheld to desktop, along with others that have a misting function or that are bladeless.

With such a huge choice of fans, there is sure to be one that will help you make it through the summer heat.

Wearing a yukata summer robe and holding a handheld electric fan. (© Pixta)

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

summer fan