When my wife, Kayo, and I arrived in Kameoka in the fall of 1991 as part of the OSU-K faculty and staff, one of our first purchases was two umbrellas. There are some small things one knows they will need in Japan and umbrellas are on that list. For many, that list would also include a handkerchief and a hand-held fan. 

As an island nation surrounded by water, the summers in much of Japan are hot and extremely humid, therefore almost every adult carries a handkerchief with them to wipe off the perspiration. Because of such wide use of handkerchiefs, for many years nice handkerchiefs were often given as a gift. Both Kayo and I have a collection of handkerchiefs from friends in Japan, but her collection is much larger and nicer than mine. Before electric fans and air conditioning hand-held fans were widely used here as well as throughout Japan. 

In fact, fans were used well before the time of Christ and are listed as one of the “Eight Precious Things” of the ancient Taoist religion in China. By far the most widely used fan in Japan today is the folding fan, or sensu. Folding fans were developed in Japan and are said to be an imitation of a bat’s wing. Almost every woman in Japan has a folding fan, or several folding fans, and rarely leaves home without one in her purse. But, there are different kinds of folding fans. Some are for decorative purposes and are not suitable to carry in a purse, but all have one common characteristic. 

The way folding fans spread in an arc from a single point is called suehiro and is a symbol of good fortune and prosperity. There is a family who live near Kayo’s parent’s home who have had a fan-making company for many years.  The Kohdono family makes different kinds of fans, but are probably best known for their beautiful decorative fans. One son, Tomohito, was put in charge of the company several years ago and his name on his Facebook page is “The Fanman”.  We enjoyed having lunch and going sightseeing with Tomohito the last time we were in Japan and, of course, received another beautiful fan at that time. However, there are other uses for the folding fans besides for fanning one’s self and for decoration. In the hands of a skilled dancer or Kabiki actor, the fan is often used to simulate a wide range of visual or emotional effects. 

In much the same way, traditional Japanese storytellers can use folding fans to create actions and sounds to accompany their story. If one were to ask me what I thought was the most frequently given gift in Japan, my response would be “a folding fan” and we have many and very recently received another.  Want to borrow an umbrella? We still have those bought in 1991 and they’re still in good shape because we don’t use them nearly as much here as in Kameoka.

Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.

Recommended for you