The folding fan was invented in Japan and was in use by the Japanese aristocracy as early as the 6th Century. It was a practical item for providing some relief during the hot and humid Japanese summers. The folding fan was made of bamboo, or wood, and Japanese paper (washi) or silk, which required skilled craftsmen to produce. Thus, it was a luxury item that could have been afforded by those with means, that is, the aristocracy, top clergy, and wealthy merchants. It did not take long before the folding fan became a status symbol as delicate paintings, poems and religious writings became an integral decoration of the fan. (Heian aristocracy in the Tale of Genji picture scroll ⇒)
When an independent warrior society began to form in the 12th Century, many aspects of court culture have been adopted with certain degree of modifications by warriors who viewed the court as a cultural model.
(An Heian aristocrat viewing archery display in the Annual Events picture scroll⇒)
Among the items adopted by warriors was the folding fan. For warriors, quotes and scenes from the Tale of Genji or other classics, or the delicate decorations so appreciated by courtiers, were much less appealing then strong symbols such as “hi-no-maru” or names and prayers associated with war gods and deities such as Hachiman or Fudo. But the basic principle of a folding fan as a status symbol remained.
(A Kamakura-period warrior sitting on his armor storage box on the way to fight the invading Mongols. Mongol Invasions Picture Scroll ⇒)
Although it is highly unlikely that the folding fan was ever adopted for or intended to serve as a weapon, being an “innocent” item that could be carried to any event or meeting, even when swords were forbidden, made it a potentially excellent weapon for self-defence. When its value and effectiveness were realised, warriors sought to improve its quality as a weapon and replaced the bamboo with iron. As such, the iron folding fan could still maintain its original function of blowing wind for cooling down, and display impressive art-work, but at the same time it served as a lethal weapon that could inflict severe damage on an attacker.
(A portrait of Sengoku daimyo Mori Motonari sitting on a campground stool and holding a folding fan with a "hi-no-maru" design ⇒)
The folding fan, whether it was made of bamboo, wood or iron, displayed the wealth and status of its bearer, served military commanders and generals to give orders and signals, and even became a grand item to startle the enemy by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa regime. The paintings on the left illustrate the usage of the folding fan as an individual item and as well as its function as part of the Tokugawa flag on the battlefield.
The iron folding fan used in the demonstration video below is displayed in the photo on the bottom right. It was produced and owned by a military commander in the Tokugawa period, and displays the writing “No Lose in A Thousand Years (Sensai Fumetsu)” together with a painting and a poem. Its outer iron frame is decorative and designed to resemble a bamboo.
(A portrait of Sengoku daimyo Oyama Hidetsuna sitting relaxingly in his castle and holding an iron folding fan ⇒)
(Tokugawa Ieyasu's battlefield banner as depicted in the Battle of Sekigahara folding screens ⇘)
Due to its historical value and delicate condition, the demonstration with the iron fan is limited in scope. Nevertheless, the viewer can see the application of both bamboo fan and iron fan for striking, thrusting and applying pressure on kyusho to control and submit the attackers.