What is a Folding Fan?

Tara Barnett

A folding fan is a handheld cooling device that conveniently folds down into a thin and compact form. While a folding fan can be large when it is open, it is never any wider than a single folding segment when it has been closed. Folding fans are primarily used for cooling but are also used in dance, as weapons and as decoration. Once carried in Japan as a marker of rank, folding fans have endured as objects of beauty and practical use in many countries.

Folding fans originated in Japan.
Folding fans originated in Japan.

This fan design has its origins in Japan, though varieties of folding fans appear in numerous cultures now. Japanese fans were originally made out of Japanese cypress held together with thread. They later developed into thin slats of a stiff and strong material, such as bamboo, covered in fabric or paper. Modern Japanese folding fans are often made by machine with printed designs, but originally all designs were painted by hand on handmade paper.

Japanese folding fans are often sold at flea markets.
Japanese folding fans are often sold at flea markets.

Over many centuries, the folding fan design was taken from Japan to China, and then to Europe. In Europe, the folding fan took a radically divergent path as it evolved in design. European folding fans had much closer sticks, and often did not use a flexible material like paper. They also used European designs on the surfaces, including religious scenes. While the basic structure of the European folding fan has its origins in Japan, it shares relatively few features with its Asian ancestors.

In Japan, folding fans have had many uses over the ages. One of the more unique uses was the war fan, which was used explicitly in combat situations. These fans were made of iron and were developed as a covert weapon to be taken into situations where other weapons were not allowed. Capable of providing defense against long range weapons, such as arrows and darts, as well as protection from close range weapons like swords, the iron folding fan is the subject of many samurai legends. In Japanese, this weapon is called a tessen, and the art of fighting with these fans is called tessenjutsu.

Japanese folding fans are often seen at festivals, and they are sold in most convenient stores in Japan. More expensive fans can be found throughout Japan in antique stores and flea markets. One particularly good market in which to buy folding fans in Japan is next to the Sensoji temple in Tokyo. With all the history and culture embedded in this traditional device, these fans have become great souvenirs.

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