People not intimate with Japanese culture will nevertheless be familiar with the Japanese fan. Both the folding fan (ogi) or the fixed, rigid fan (uchiwa) with a decorative scene printed on the paper cover are still commonplace gifts all over the world. The obvious use of the fan is to drive air over the body in the summer heat to cool down. Like most decorative items these simple objects became the subject of a great deal of etiquette and minute social status and even laws, restricting the number of slats and the variety of painted imagery. The history of these curious but socially important objects can be traced back to the sixth century in China but they do not become important in Japanese culture until the Heian period of the tenth and eleventh century. By the later Edo period, fan making had become an important industry and provided artists with income when print commissions were not forthcoming.
All of the great ukiyo-e artists produced fan prints known as uchiwa-e. The great beauty and delicacy that went into the designs is well known and unmounted uchiwa-e are hugely collectible and very expensive. Of the Edo artists, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi are maybe most well known. Hiroshige’s uchiwa-e are particularly outstanding, and because the items were in daily use very few of the designs have survived intact.
Construction of both types was of a lightweight bamboo frame on which paper designs were pasted. The artist drew the image onto a paper template whose shape mirrored the final dimensions of the fan. Very occasionally, extant fans do survive but for ukiyo-e collectors it is the untrimmed paper sheets produced by the printer and therefore in unused condition which are the most collectible. Toshidama Gallery is currently showing an exhibition of onnagata (female impersonators from the kabuki stage) prints where we have included three extremely rare uchiwa-e by Toyohara Kunichika (see top of page). All three show examples of theatre scenes and these would have been collected by the fanatical kabuki enthusiasts of the time.
Perhaps less well known are the war fans or fighting fans (tessen) of the Japanese Edo period. The commonest were folding fans made of heavy plates of iron which were designed to look like normal, harmless folding fans or solid clubs shaped to look like a closed fan. Samurai could take these to places where swords or other overt weapons were not allowed, and some swordsmanship schools included training in the use of the tessen as a weapon. The tessen was also used for fending off arrows and darts and as a throwing weapon. War fans are often depicted in Japanese prints, although as the picture opposite of some actual iron fans shows, it is more or less impossible to differentiate them from normal, lightweight versions.
The most famous use of the tessen in Japanese storytelling is of the fight between Benkei and Yoshitsune-no Minamoto. Yoshitsune’s is a tragic and very famous story in Japan. His father was persecuted by the rival Taira Clan and Yoshitsune was brought up in a monastery. Legend has it that he was then taught the secrets of fighting by Tengu (mythical forest creatures) before taking up rebellion against his father’s old enemies. The scenes depicted in the prints left and below, is the famous meeting between Yoshitsune and the folk hero Oniwakamura (Benkei). Benkei, known as a phenomenally strong man and warrior, has secured Gojo bridge with the intention of relieving 1000 samurai of their swords. Yoshitsune is his 1000th victim. Yoshitsune, though slight, defeats the giant man using Tengu fighting skills and finally, overwhelming him through the use of his tessen which is clearly visible in both pictures. It is interesting to note that the iron tessen in the photograph above has the same painted design as the fan held by Yoshitsune in the Kunisada woodblock print illustrated below.
It is a curious and typically Japanese irony that these very delicate and beautiful objects, so embedded in court culture of the Japanese ruling class, so beloved by refined women, should also be imitated so skillfully in such an unsympathetic material as iron and to such violent and aggressive ends.