Folding fans, or sensu, are an undeniably sophisticated way to keep cool while looking chic. But my fascination with them has less to with fashion and everything to do with the many other ways it can be used. A perfect blend of form and function, fans have a long history of symbolism and communication of all kinds—from samurai signaling to soldiers in the battlefield to classically trained geisha and kabuki performers who manipulate the fans countless ways for artful storytelling. They come in many sizes and shapes, each tailored for a specific use.
“... she may raise it high to represent mountains, or summon a gentle breeze or ocean wave with a little lilting motion.”
Closed fans are used show respect and honor, as geisha do at the beginning of tea ceremonies. After kneeling and bowing forward until her forehead nearly touches the floor, stretches her hands forward and places her folded fan horizontally between herself and her guest, creating a sacred space that sets the tone for the rest of the tea-making ritual. While dancing, she may raise it high to represent mountains, or summon a gentle breeze or ocean wave with a little lilting motion. When not in use, geisha typically tuck this essential accessory into the sash of their kimono, often leaving just the decorative charm or tassel visible.
During the Heian period, monks and government rulers used the thin wooden reeds (nakabone) to record events and make notes, as paper was quite rare and very expensive. Later, nobles and others members of the court took a more romantic approach, penning poems or letters on a fan’s interior panels, making the sentiments visible only to the recipient when opened.
These stories fuel my fascination with fans, and I always look forward to visiting my favorite fan store when I’m in Kyoto.