Traditional crafts in Japan: folding fans

By Staff writer
April 28, 2023
Using hand fans is one of the most popular summer traditions to see in Japan, with many people using them to cool themselves off from the intense summer heat.

The history of the fan is long, dating back to the Heian period (794-1192), about 1,200 years ago. In those days, paper was a precious material, so wooden or bamboo planks were used for ordinary documents. It is said that the first fans were made by writing characters in ink on these boards and binding them together. Specifically, it was used as a tool for writing short waka-style poems and writing down the ceremonial details of events so as not to forget them. In addition, folding fans were useful because they could be folded into small pieces, making them easy to carry.

At first, fans were the used solely by men, but as they came to be decorated with colors and paintings, women began to carry them for decoration. At that time, only aristocrats and similarly wealthy people would carry them, but by the Edo period (1603-1867), they had become widely popular among the general public.
An arrangement of bright and colorful Japanese fans
At shrines, fans are treated as sacred objects for use in dances dedicated to the gods, which are performed at festivals and seasonal events to pray for good health, protection from illness and bad luck, and a good harvest. The fans are an indispensable element that add elegance and beauty to the dance. There are also fans for traditional performing arts, such as Japanese dance and Noh. They are slightly larger in size and feature abstract and gorgeous patterns such as fog and water.
Shrine mikos performing a dance with folding fans
A man in kimono holding a large paper fan
Fans are also used in traditional Japanese tea ceremony. During the ceremony, a fan is placed in front of one's knees when greeting others. This gesture is said to show respect by using the fan to keep a distance between you and the other person. In the traditional storytelling art of rakugo, the fan is often used as a prop or tool to accompany the story, where it may stand in for chopsticks, a brush, a cigarette, a cup, etc., or by using it to create sound effects.
Two women in a Japanese tea ceremony with fans placed in front of their knees as they bow to guests
Combining design and functionality, the fan, a traditional Japanese craft, has long been loved by the Japanese people. Today, in addition to traditional designs, a variety of modern designs can also be seen. Colorful fans are also popular as souvenirs among tourists from overseas.
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