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Folding fans originated in Japan in the early years of the Heian period (794 – 1185).

“Sensu” are folding type fans and “Uchiwa” are the rigid variety. Sensu were invented in Japan, and Uchiwa in China. Both are used in modern day Japan, but often for different purposes and occasions. In this article we will focus on Sensu.

The angle the fan is opened to varies from between 90 -180 degrees, with around 120 degrees being the norm. The shape of the unfolded fan broadens towards the ends and this shape is known as “Sue-hirogari” in Japanese. For a very long time, this has been considered lucky. Sensu have a lot of uses; some are used in dance, some purely for decoration, and so on. All in all, there are about ten kinds of sensu, and some of them, and their uses, are outlined below.

Varieties of Sensu

“Hi-ougi” are used in ceremonies and for decoration. This is the oldest style of fan and they are made from thin slats of cypress wood that are stitched together with silk thread.

“Kawahori-sen” are generally used for decoration. They are a paper type fan which followed on from Hi-ougi, and became popular in the Heian era.

“Cha-sen” are generally used in the tea ceremony. There are two sizes of this fan, according to the gender of the user. Those for men measure about 18 cm, and those for women about 15cm.

“Mai-ougi” are the fans used in Japanese dance. These are a very common type of fan, however, they show certain differences between those used by men and women, for example, in color, design, size, or in other subtle ways.

History of the Fan

The first fans came into existence in Kyoto around 1200 years ago (the early part of the Heian period). Therefore, we call those fans made in Kyoto “Kyo-sensu”. On the other hand, those which were made in Edo (present day Tokyo), took the name “Edo-sensu”. Simply put, each fan takes its name from the area in which it was made.

geisha fanThe first fans made were Hi-ougi, and at the time of their conception, monks and public officials were known to have written on slender strips of wood. These strips were mainly used for notations, scribblings and for the practice of Chinese characters, as paper, at that time, was a very precious commodity. Out of necessity and neatness, these wooden strips were often piled up and joined together, and became a sort of wooden notebook. Thereafter, the practice of drawing beautiful pictures on the strips was started, and they came to be used by both men and women, nobles and princesses. At this time, they were basically used as a tool of communication, so their use as a fan or cooling device was not the original intention. In actual fact, many of the early Hi-ougi were far too heavy to be used as fans.

The use of paper began to spread during the middle part of the Heian era, and paper fans for summer, Kawahori-sen, were produced in direct contrast to the Hi-ougi variety employed in the winter. Following their widespread use in Japan, they were exported to China, and even spread throughout Europe. Those fans that found their way to Europe were re-imported towards the end of the Edo period in the form of “Kinu-sen”, which are the variety of fan made from tightly stretched cloth. This occurrence had a strong impact on the size and use of the conventional fan.

maiko fan


The Kyo-sensu was created more than 1000 years ago and has since been employed in a number of ways, changing to suit the times, and sought after by all manner of people. There has been an increase in the demand for more fashionable sensu of late, with different designs, colors and patterns being developed to fit with the modern market. There are even sensu available now with characters from popular culture printed on them.

Regardless of age or sex, a lot of Japanese and foreign visitors to Kyoto buy Kyo-sensu as souvenirs, both for their beauty, and because they are very compact and easy to carry.

These days, sensu may be sold more often than uchiwa because of their convenience. Moreover, sensu are used more often than uchiwa on formal occasions, for example, in certain ceremonies and at special events. A lot of women carry sensu, not only as a means of keeping cool, but also because they add to the feminine appeal of the user. Sensu are also very practical as an accessory, and go equally well with both Japanese and Western style clothing.