Symbolism of Japanese Fans

In Japanese culture, fan paintings are symbolic.

Fans are very important in Japanese culture; in fact, in traditional Japanese dress you can’t be considered fully clothed unless you are carrying a folding fan (called an ogi). There are two types of Japanese fans, the folding fan and the uchiwa or “screen” fan. Historically Japanese of every gender, age and social level have carried fans, and many of them are beautifully painted to tell stories or convey messages to those who know how to decipher the symbols.

1 The Structure

The fan itself is symbolic, with the small end representing birth and the blades symbolizing the many possible paths leading away from this beginning. The colors on the fan are also significant. Red and white are considered lucky, and gold is thought to attract wealth. Figures or designs are generally repeated an odd number of times, since odd numbers are lucky-groups of five are thought to be particularly auspicious.

2 The Usage

The main use of fans is to create a cooling breeze for the user, but in Japan it goes beyond the obvious. Fans were once thought to keep away evil, were used in religious ceremonies and to provide shade for royalty. Holding a fan was also considered restorative to the soul. Fans are also used as a social barometer. Placing a closed fan between yourself and someone else means you are acknowledging their superior status. Fans are also used in Japanese theater to accentuate the stylized movements of Kabuki and Noh.

3 Life and Longevity

Fans are often given as gifts to honor births or birthdays, and these fans are often covered in floral designs. In Japanese imagery, flowers are symbolic of life-chrysanthemums especially because their many petals stand for many long years. Animals (such as the tortoise and the crane) that live long lives are also painted on birthday fans. Flax plants grow tall and straight, so parents may give a child a fan with flax leaves painted on it to convey their wish that he grow like the flax plant.

4 Flowers and Plants

Representations of evergreen plants, such as bamboo and pine, symbolize endurance. Cherry blossoms-a beloved Japanese symbol-are a sign of the love between parents and children. Roses signify love, and the combination of roses and pine trees are symbolic of the opposites-attract principle of yin and yang. Plum blossom represents a hopeful new beginning.

5 Animals

Birds in pairs symbolize loving couples, but black birds represent evil. Lions symbolize strength, royalty and protection, while tigers signify war. A horse can symbolize mercy (particularly if it is white). One butterfly means a conceited, fickle woman, but two symbolize a happy marriage. A koi fish-possibly the most well-known Japanese symbol-means wealth, luck and a long, long life.

Siva Stephens has been a writer since she could hold a pencil. She has written newspaper articles, medical manuals, advertising copy and gags for cartoonists. Stephens has been publishing online since 2004, most recently as a contributing author for the Oregon Encyclopedia Project.