When Westerners think of Japanese culture, beautifully illustrated Japanese fans are one of the first things that come to mind. In fact, the use of fans has permeated Japanese culture throughout its history.

Types

Japanese fans fall under two categories: Uchiwa, or non-folding, and ogi, or folding fans.

Characteristics

Uchiwa have been made of wood; lacquered leather; and paper stretched over bamboo blades that come together at the base to form a handle.

Ogi were originally made of small boards of wood tied together, and later of paper or fabric glued onto wood or ivory blades. Both types were often decorated with calligraphy of poems and Buddhist sutras.

Uses

Gumpai-uchiwa fans made of metal, leather or wood were used by military leaders to transit signals in battle. In sumo wrestling, they are used by referees. Fans are used in Japanese dance and Kabuki and Noh theatre, and by all classes.

Development

In the Edo period (1603-1876), ukiyo-e woodblock printing gave rise to a broad range of fans. By 1701, the style of decorated fans had become so elaborate and the price for some so extravagant that the manufacture and use of overly luxurious designs was forbidden by the shogunate.

Influence

The first folding fans in Europe were copied from Chinese and Japanese prototypes and reserved for royalty and nobility.