Vol. 54 Issue 1, 2009-2010
By Lucy Birmingham
"The Japanese fan is like a living thing," says Masaji Masuyama, owner of the Manyou fan shop in Asakusa, the heart of Tokyo's old downtown (shitamachi) district. "The paper of a fan constantly changes, swelling and shrinking, becoming smooth or slightly rough with changes in humidity," he adds. Though something of an anachronism today, the Japanese fan has played a substantial role in the daily and ritual life of the Japanese people — as an accessory, a means of social expression, in the performing arts from ancient times. The shape of the folding fan is also seen as a metaphor of increase in prosperity, felicity, good luck, indicated by the word suehiro, which connotes expanding out from a point.
Ogi and Sensu and Vice Versus
The two broad categories of Japanese fans are the rigid and folding types. Today the rigid type is known as an uchiwa, and the folding type is divided into ogi and sensu. The uchiwa made of paper pasted to ribs radiating from the top of a handle, or it may just be a dried leaf (usually a type of palm) cut to shape. The ogi and sensu are made of ribs or slats, held together at one end. The ribs may be attached by strings, or paper may be stretched between them and pleated so that it folds into a small size.
When asked the difference between ogi and sensu, Mr. Masuyama sucks in his breathe and tilts his head in that familiar way when no clear answer is apparent. "Ogi have a kind of formal image. They are used in traditional entertainments like Japanese dance, Noh drama, various forms of story telling, etc., and are made of high-quality materials," he explains. "Sensu have a sort of casual image and are used by regular people in daily life."
Although the sensu fan used for cooling the brow on a hot summer's day is structurally and decoratively different from the ogi fan, the differences have blurred over the centuries as styles and designs have developed and merged.
The fan was first brought to Japan from China around the sixth century. It was a round and rigid form, used in China as screens and for ceremonies. Seemingly the Chinese fan was once decorated with plumes, so the Chinese character for "fan" (扇) as it appears in the Japanese ogi (扇) and sensu (扇子), is derived from a picture of feathers under a roof.
The folding paper fan is thought to be a Japanese invention, but very little is known about its origins. Among the legends proclaiming the folding fan's origin is one that refers to a Toyomaru from Tamba province, who was inspired by a bat's wing, which opens wide and folds flat. Another is placed at the Mieido temple in Kyoto, where an abbot was cured of a fever with incantations and the cooling breezes of a piece of paper folded into pleats. Prompted by this popular story, many traditional fan shops in Kyoto are named Mieido.
The oldest extant example of a folding fan dates form A.D. 877 and is in the possession of the To-ji temple in Kyoto. Those first folding fans were made of cypress wood (hinoki) slats, pegged together at the bottom and fastened with strings at the top. This type of cypress fan is known as a hiogi. The flat surface of the wooden fan was decorated with pictures and calligraphy.
The first papered fan appeared in the middle years of the Heian period (794-1185), and it was papered on one side only. This fan, which had only five ribs in its earliest form, was called the kawahori ogi, named after its resemblance to a bat's wing. Later, it gained more ribs and became ornate.
Until the end of the Heian period, fans were largely used by the aristocracy, but they came into general use at the time. Illustrated scrolls depict scenes of court life in which fans are carried by both men and women. It is said that there were three things most desired by the Chinese from Japan during those early centuries: swords, fine paper with gold decoration, and folding fans. Apparently folding fans were exported to China in large quantities, where they were copied and modified and eventually found their way to Europe.
The major Chinese modification to the Japanese folding fan was to paper both sides of the ribs. These double-papered fans were brought back to Japan sometime in the Muromachi period (1333-1573) and were immediately emulated by Japanese fan makers. The Muromachi period, though a time of strife and difficulty, was the time when the folding fan was refined into its basic forms.
One exceptional fan form is the type called the chukei, a large fan that splays out at the top when folded rather than folding into a neat, compact stick-like shape. The first chukei known is dated to 1352. This fan form was used primarily by the aristocracy and priests. Today, it is mainly used by the Buddhist clergy for ceremonial purposes.
The Noh drama also developed in this period, and the folding fan became one of the most important hand props. But it is more that a prop. The fan is used to emphasize and lend power to gesture, to help the actor project and fill the stage, and to punctuate and symbolize. Used like a silent voice, it offers visual clues about the drama's complicated plot. While viewing a Noh performance, suddenly, as if awakened from a perplexing dream, you are able to understand the protagonist's depression or shock as he drops his open fan to the stage floor. Or, you come to realize that he is readying for battle with a closed fan that magically appears like a sword or an arrow being pulled back in a bow. The heavy stylization and strictures of Noh drama extend to fans. Designs are determined by traditional rules, and each school of Noh has its own standards and styles.
The various schools of classic Japanese dance also began to evolve in the Muromachi period, an evolution that continues still today. The ogi was quickly adopted into Japanese dance, perhaps because of its great versatility for dramatic statement and symbolism. The dance fan is called a mai-ogi and is somewhat smaller than the Noh drama fan. The mai-ogi includes sizes, shapes and decorations for every kind of dance in every season. In general, it is a large, stiff fan with broad folds made of thick washi paper layers, fitted with about ten bamboo ribs. Often brightly colored and enhanced with gold or silver leaf, it is easy to see from a distance by a theater audience. Classical Japanese dance is understated and retrained, relying largely on hand and arm movements and posture as expressive techniques. The fan, open or closed, is used to accentuate almost every movement as well as to portray objects, actions, and give nuance to emotions. Watch transfixed as a geisha in mid-performance deftly angles a simple white mai-ogi fan painted perhaps with flowing green willow branches and edged with a fading red border. Her graceful fan movements appear effortless but are in fact precisely rendered, each with special meaning, and learned through years of training.
This expressive power of the mai-ogi was naturally adopted by the Kabuki theater in the Edo period (1603-1868). At Kabuki, watch wide-eyed as an actor pretends to sip from an imaginary sake cup placed on a closed fan, or an onnagata (Kabuki actor in female role) mimics crying tears by hiding her face behind her trembling open fan. Kabuki mai-ogi are usually brightly painted with flora such as rich red autumn maple leaves or a flourish of cherry blossoms that represent the season of the play.
The fan also plays a role in the tea ceremony. The diminutive chasen appears only at the beginning of the ceremony, when ritual greetings are exchanged. And in the Edo period, the fan reached the height of refinement with the development of the sensu. This light, folding fan is designed so that the papers do not fold larger than the width of the end of the ribs, as compared to the formal Noh and dance ogi, in which the paper is many times wider than the ribs to keep its shape. The dance fan cannot be easily carried for everyday use, while the sensu was made for such a purpose. The sensu was carried by everyone, and could be casually discarded when the summer ended or a popular new fan decoration appeared.
The vast variety of sensu and ogi fan types also includes: mochi-ogi for greeting guests as a formal event such as a wedding; kozasen for rakugo (the traditional one-man comic theater); kazari-ogi for display; gunsen with metal slats, used by warriors; tessen, made with heavy iron guards but resembling ordinary folding fans, that were used as weapons. The gumbai uchiwa was a rigid fan of wood used by military commanders as a signaling device. A similar type is held by sumo referees.
An Art Genre
Fan painting became an established branch of Japanese painting from the Muromachi period, but few fans from this period have survived. Some of the finest preserved examples are by two renowned artists from the Edo period (1600-1868) — Tawaraya Sotatsu (died c. 1642) and Ogata Korin (1658-1716). Of the two, Sotatsu is better known as a fan painter. His remarkable compositions, viewed right to left, skillfully related to the folding fan format that opens from left to right. Korin painted fan leaves but preferred the rounded, rigid type, likely influenced by his experimentation with circular forms on kimono (his family owned a textile business in Kyoto) and later compositions on screens.
While fans painted by these two great Edo period artists attracted wealthy collectors, it was the cheap ukiyo-e woodblock prints of that time which popularized the fan in Japan. Sold by street vendors or in local shops, these fans were cheap and easily mass-produced with woodblock printed scenes of daily life, popular sightseeing spots, and portraits of favorite Kabuki actors and fashionable courtesans from Yoshiwara, the entertainment and pleasure quarters of Edo (modern Tokyo). Fans were part of everyday life, carried in kimono sleeves, used as tokens of love, and given as gifts for auspicious occasions. The fan game called tosenkyo (the pleasure of throwing a fan) became a popular gambling game and was ultimately outlawed. When Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world at the start of the Meiji period (1868-1912), a craze for all things Japanese ensued, including a fascination with Japanese fans. Claude Monet's iconic La Japonaise (1876) portrays his wife Camille dressed in a sumptuous kimono holding a folding fan with uchiwa fans decorated the wall behind her.
Keeping the Tradition
In Japan, lacquer and gold sprinkles are traditional, popular materials for elegant, high-quality fans. In vogue today are fan leaves decorated with reflective, hologram-like material that shine and sparkle under stage lights. But design and materials are not the only elements that define a high-quality fan. The very best fans are judged by the way they open and close. "A mai-ogi dance fan needs to snap open easily," explains Masaji Masuyama. "It shouldn't be too tight or too loose. The pin that secures the ribs needs to be fitted perfectly." He adds that the pin was once made from pliable whale baleen which would shrink and expand, in tune with the weather.
Manyou does a brisk business in mai-ogi fans, with constant orders from traditional dance schools throughout Tokyo. But Maruyama admits that 90 percent of the shop's fans come from Kyoto. "In Kyoto there's a huge demand for mai-ogi fans, so most of them are now assembled quickly, assembly-line style," he says. In Tokyo there are few fan craftsmen, so that they must be able to assemble the entire fan in the traditional way.
One such craftsman is 75-year-old Yoshihisa Uchida. His tiny, cluttered shop called Junsendo (displaying no shop sign) next to the neighborhood barbershop, off the beaten track in Tokyo's Kichijoji area has attracted wide media coverage as one of the few places in the city where fans are made and assembled in the old way. "I started this 60 years ago, but I'm not really a fan maker," says Uchida with no-nonsense, rapid-fire flair. "When the war was finished I was a teenager and old enough to work so my parents sent me off to apprentice with a fan maker. But what I really wanted to do," he says pointing to one of the many devices in the room, "was to make machines." With a laugh he adds, "Actually, I'm known as 'the machine man'."
Uchida put his engineering ingenuity to use by making small machines for his fan business. His daughter and helper, Kayoko Suzuki isn't strong enough to cut through the thick reams of washi paper needed for the fans, so he built her a cutting machine. Another device blows air into the layered fan paper to open the slots where the bamboo ribs are inserted. "Those fan makers blowing from their mouths into the folds, it's nonsense," says Uchida. "If your cut your mouth while blowing the blood seeps into the paper. This gadget is a much better way." Uchida's assistant, 29-year-old Hideo Moriishi comes from a family of painters and wanted to learn the craft. "I hope somehow he'll carry on the tradition," says Uchida. "But to be honest, there aren't many of us who can fold a fan like this," he says as his fingers rapidly manipulate the flexible paper. Magically, a perfectly folded fan shape appears, like a tiny accordion, ready for pressing.
Although air conditioning may have cooled interest in the hand-held fan, now limited largely to festivals, special occasions and performances, the fan remains an integral part of Japanese culture. Sometimes, a fan can appear in the most unlikely places.
While sitting in a coffee shop writing this story, a 40-something man in a business suit sat next to me, opened his morning newspaper and then his fan to cool himself in the stuffy, crowded room. It was a simple but elegant white fan fitted with black ribbing, set with a folded paper leaf printed with swishing black sumi ink forming the Chinese character for kaze or wind. The bottom right corner was stamped with a bright red hanko, the artist's chop or signature, adding a dash of color. The man told me he has been buying a new fan every year, just before summer begins, since he was in his twenties.
Soon after the man left, by chance a Japanese friend came into the coffee shop and sat with me. She pulled from her purse a fan from Nara made with indigo-dyed silk decorated with delicate auspicious tsuru (white cranes). "I bring it with me everywhere," she explains. "It not only cools me but is also relaxing. And, they're perfect for gifts." When her youngest child was born she gave fans as thank you gifts to those who sent her baby presents. "Fans are compact, practical and beautiful," she says. "They're something very Japanese that everyone can enjoy."