Japanese fans have withstood the test of time as not only a functional accessory, but a cultural blend of elegance, eco-friendliness, and practicality. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, Japanese fans serve a practical purpose, providing a convenient way to cool oneself in the humid summers. With a graceful flick of the wrist, the fan unfolds, creating a gentle breeze that instantly offers relief from the heat.
Moreover, Japanese fans make for exceptional gifts, encapsulating both utility and beauty. Whether adorned with cherry blossoms or intricate traditional patterns, these fans are tokens of thoughtfulness and cultural appreciation. Embracing sustainability and tradition, Japanese fans are not just accessories, but expressions of a harmonious lifestyle.
Selecting the perfect Japanese fan involves more than aesthetics; it's about finding the ideal fusion of style, size, and cultural significance. In this article, we will explore the different designs, sizes, and types of Japanese fans available on the market - you may be surprised by all of the different, yet equally beautiful, options!
In general, there are two main types of Japanese fans - the folding fan (sensu) and the flat fan (uchiwa).
As its name implies, the folding fan is a handheld fan that can be folded up to be more compact. The flat fan, on the other hand, cannot be folded, so it is not as compact. While both the folding fan and the flat fan are used in Japan, the flat fan is usually reserved for more casual occasions, such as festivals or in the home. Folding fans, on the other hand, are seen as more elegant, and therefore can often be found at more formal occasions that demand a more refined attire. It is common to see those wearing kimono carrying a folding fan on their body as well.
At BECOS, we stock both uchiwa flat fans and sensu folding fans, so you can choose the perfect type of fan for your lifestyle!
The oldest versions of the uchiwa flat fan can be traced back to ancient China, and were originally made from large leaves such as those of the Chinese fan palm. Found in archaeological sites in Japan dating back as far as the Kofun period (300-538AD) , the uchiwa predates the foldable sensu fan by centuries. Starting around 300 years ago, the uchiwa gained its modern design, with a design printed or drawn on paper covering a bamboo frame.
Originally only used by women, uchiwa are now used throughout Japan by everyone, regardless of gender or age. Uchiwa fans are highly associated with summer festivals, where festival-goers are often seen fanning themselves vigorously to escape the summer heat, but they are also widely used for cooling down sushi rice and fanning the fire while grilling dishes such as yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), a testament to the versatility of the flat fan.
The sensu type of Japanese fan is thought to have been created in Kyoto around 1,200 years ago. Initially only used by men, over time, women also began to embrace the fan, adorning them with diverse prints and paintings, shaping the sophisticated folding fans we know today. There are two main types of sensu produced in Japan today, Kyo-sensu and Edo-sensu.
The intricate process behind Kyo-sensu folding fans involves 87 meticulous steps, each executed by different skilled artisans who have mastered their particular step in the process. Using only materials found in Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures, these fans are crafted solely in Kyoto, overseen by members of the Kyoto Folding Fan and Round Fan Association of Commerce and Industry. This commitment to regional materials and expertise not only preserves traditional craftsmanship, but also ensures the authenticity and quality of each folding fan, emphasizing the deep cultural roots embedded in their creation.
"Edo" is the historic name for Tokyo, and the Edo-sensu folding fans trace their roots to a Kyoto craftsman who relocated to Tokyo, introducing his craft to the vibrant city. Initially influenced by Kyoto's design aesthetics, Edo-sensu fans underwent an evolution to align with the dynamic culture of Edo, now Tokyo, catering to the modern and ever-evolving tastes of the populace.
In contrast to the collaborative creation of Kyo-sensu fans, each Edo-sensu folding fan is the handiwork of a single artisan. This individualized approach makes mass production challenging, rendering many Edo-sensu fans unique, one-of-a-kind pieces of art. Notably robust with thicker frames, these Japanese fans deliver a satisfying sound when unfurled, reflecting both the craftsmanship of the maker and the resilience demanded by the energetic spirit of Edo.
If you are looking at purchasing a sensu folding fan, the size and number of fan “bones” are important factors to take into consideration.
If you have large hands, we recommend a fan that’s 21cm or more in length. Otherwise, aim for 20 cm or less. Traditionally, fans over 21cm are made for men and feature more masculine prints, while 20cm and less lean toward the feminine side, but anyone is free to use the size that works for them.
As for the number of fan bones, most sensu fans feature anywhere between 15-25 bones.
If you are looking for a fan with some heft that will make a beautiful sound when you flip it open or closed, look for a sensu with fewer and thicker bones, such as the Edo-sensu. If you are looking for a finer and more elegant style of fan, look for one with 30 or more bones , often found in the Kyo-sensu style of folding fan.
We have explored the two main types of Japanese fans: the uchiwa flat fan and the sensu folding fan, both of which have their own strengths and weaknesses.
The uchiwa type of Japanese fan is often more affordable and simpler in design, making them accessible to a wider audience, while the flat, rigid structure makes them durable and less prone to damage, suitable for casual use. The versatility of the design also lends itself to other uses such as cooking and stoking fires, due to the large surface area that creates a strong wind.
However, uchiwa fans lack the compact folding feature, making them less portable than folding fans, and their design, while culturally rich, might be considered less formal or elegant compared to folding fans.
On the other hand, sensu folding fans are known for their intricate designs, making them elegant accessories suitable for formal occasions, and the foldable design enhances portability, easily fitting into pockets or small bags. The especially meticulous process of crafting sensu also showcases the skill of artisans.
Some things to keep in mind, however, are that the folding mechanism can be more delicate, making these fans more susceptible to damage if mishandled, as well as a higher price point than uchiwa due to their intricate designs and artisanal craftsmanship.
There are some sensu that are specifically made for decorative purposes and should not be used vigorously lest the delicate designs become damaged, and other, more durable versions made for everyday use. Other options include fans scented with incense such as hinoki cypress or cherry blossom, which create a delicate aroma around the holder when used.
Here at BECOS, we also offer personalizable engraved sensu - the perfect thoughtful and unique gift for a loved one.
Ultimately, the choice between the uchiwa flat fan and the sensu folding fan depends on the context of use, personal preferences, and the desired balance between functionality and aesthetic appeal, and both are equally beautiful choices.
Traditional Materials Used in Japanese Fans
Japanese fans, both the flat uchiwa and folding sensu, are crafted using traditional materials that contribute to their unique aesthetics and functionality. Some of the traditional materials commonly used are as follows:
Bamboo: a fundamental material in fan construction, bamboo is used both in the frame and bones. Its lightweight and flexible nature make it ideal for both folding and flat fans.
Washi paper: traditional Japanese paper, known as washi, is often used to cover the frame of Japanese fans. It provides a smooth surface for intricate paintings and prints while still maintaining durability.
Silk: for more luxurious fans, silk fabric is used to cover the fan's surface. Silk is more durable than paper and allows for year-round use, even in very humid or wet weather, while adding an extra touch of elegance.
Urushi (Japanese lacquer): Some fan frames are coated with urushi, a traditional Japanese lacquer. This not only adds a glossy finish but also enhances the durability and water-resistant properties of the fan.
Gold leaf: In high-end fans, gold leaf may be applied to add a luxurious touch. This technique, known as kinpaku, involves carefully layering thin sheets of gold onto the fan's surface.
The combination of these materials reflects the Japanese commitment to craftsmanship and attention to detail, creating fans that are not only functional and durable, but also beautiful expressions of art and tradition.
Japanese Fan Traditions
Each type of Japanese fan, both the uchiwa flat fan and both schools of sensu folding fan (Kyo-sensu and Edo-sensu) is surrounded in rich history and tradition that continues in the modern day.
Uchiwa flat fans are staples of Japanese summer festivals, but they can also be seen as accessories to sumo referees and in geisha’s traditional dances, as well as in the hand of sushi chefs cooling down rice.
The Kyo-sensu, originating in Kyoto - the home of the geisha - is another staple in traditional geisha dances. High-end Kyo-sensu often showcase intricate paintings and prints, which has become synonymous with Kyoto's refined artistic culture. This type of sensu is also often used at formal occasions such as tea ceremonies and other upscale events, especially ones that require the event-goers to don traditional kimono.
The Edo-sensu, originating in what is modern-day Tokyo, tends to be sturdier than the Kyo-sensu, with fewer and thicker bones, and is often associated with its use in traditional entertainment such as kabuki theater and rakugo Japanese comedy.
These schools of Japanese fans not only represent distinct regional styles but also showcase the integration of traditional craftsmanship into both functional and artistic contexts, contributing to Japan's colorful cultural tapestry.
In the enduring simplicity of uchiwa, the delicate folds of Kyo-sensu and the lively thwacks of Edo-sensu, Japanese fans unfold a story of tradition, craftsmanship, and cultural evolution.
From the refined elegance of Kyoto to the energetic pulse of Edo, each fan school weaves a unique narrative through its materials, techniques, and regional influences. These fans, born from centuries-old practices, transcend mere accessories, becoming vessels that carry the spirit of Japan. As they grace formal ceremonies, entertain with dance and theater, or flutter in the summer breeze of festivals, Japanese fans continue to breathe life into ancient traditions, making them timeless symbols of artistry and heritage that people all around the world can enjoy.
Whether for yourself or a gift for a loved one, we hope that you can find your perfect match in a Japanese fan crafted by BECOS’s uniquely talented artisans - a functional piece of art that is sure to be treasured for years to come.