In Japan, the ubiquitous hand-held fan is an easy and environmentally friendly way to beat the sultry summer heat.
You can see people of both sexes and all ages casually fanning themselves on train platforms, in parks, walking along crowded city streets, and even astride a bicycle while waiting at a red light.
Hand-held fans come in two basic types:
a flat fan called an uchiwa
and a folding one called a sensu.
Different regions of Japan have their own styles and Kyoto claims to have the best.
The uchiwa is traditionally made from a piece of bamboo that is solid for the handle and divided into spokes to support the paper fan.
These days plastic frames are more common and the traditional methods of constructing bamboo frames are a dying art. Classic uchiwa have elegant hand painted or printed designs applied by expert craftsmen or even renowned artists.
These giveaways are decorated with classic reproductions, kawai manga characters or pop stars, product photos or even political slogans.
They feature the sponsor’s logo and a message selling anything from computer games to soft drinks, or listing the services of banks, restaurants, or massage parlors.
The gunbai-dansen was a large uchiwa used by military generals in the days of the samurai to signal their troops on the battlefield.
Sensu, 扇子the universally recognized folding fans, have a colorful history that includes different uses, some rather odd.
While the uchiwa was imported from China, the sensu was invented by Japanese more than a thousand years ago in the Aska-Nara Period (6th-8th Centuries).
During the ensuing Heian Period (784 – 1185) the status conscious rulers established laws regulating all matters related to the sensu.
The law specified how many ribs a sensu could have depending on the owner’s rank and certainly the images painted on the paper surface must have been strictly censored.
Other laws decreed the proper ways sensu could be used in religious rituals and other ceremonies.
To this day sensu are part of the formal wear of the royal family used in court functionsand Shinto priests still use them in religious rituals.
Sensu were also recruited into military service; fighters carried iron tessen 鉄扇, to ward off ninja-style darts or other small missiles.
Of course, traditional artists such as geisha, rakugo storytellers, Noh and Kabuki performers carry sensu as part of their costumes and performance.
The average Japanese needs a sensu as an accessory for weddings and funerals and in the tea ceremony tradition.
There is a wide array of styles of sensu; color, size, materials, and of course, unlimited choices in designs including classic Ukiyoe, modern art, self-made designs and solid colors.
Often they have a tassel or beads hanging from the place where the spokes meet.
There are stands to display the sensu and silk cases that can be as gorgeous and as expensive as the fan itself.
Souvenir stores carry a range of styles, designs, and prices and some stores sell nothing but fans, everything from cheap imports to exquisite hand-made ones produced by skilled Japanese craftsmen.
High quality sensu and uchiwa are considered a form of art and prices can reach into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.