“The first time I went to see a fan dance . . .”
I am speaking to a colleague who is close to snapping the bones in her wrist. She is fanning her face that hard.
“. . . I thought the women would be dancing with electric fans.”
My colleague doesn’t blink. Only sweats. The batted wind from her handheld fan bursts beyond her dripping brow to molest and expose my bald spot.
“Know what I mean? . . . Pretty girls, with whirling fans in their arms, waltzing about in front of an audience of staid men in suits and women in Easter hats.”
She speaks. “You’re a ninny.”
I respond. “Uh, it’s a joke, of sorts. My way of beating the heat.”
“And,” she goes on, “you have no respect for Japanese culture. To us, a fan is more than just a fan. It is . . .”
She pauses, at a loss for the right wording. I help.
“A butter knife?”
She is not amused. So when I insist that she is wrong, and that I too am a fan of fans, she doesn’t believe me. She says I have no sense.
Which I take for a pun. Yet, she is not the punny type.
So I have no choice but to develop a treatise on the glory and grace of that simple Japanese treasure, the handheld fan.
Unfortunately, the fellow who invented the first such fan is lost somewhere in the sediments of history, along with the guy who made the initial wheel and the man who first concocted fire. Too bad they didn’t have patents back then.
But in my imagination, I envision this scene with apes, sort of like Kubrick’s opening to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Only this time instead of turning a bone into a weapon, the cleverest monkey finds a flat object — say a discarded Sponichi newspaper — and begins jerking it about to the tune of “Thus Spake Zaruthsa.”
And — viola! — wind power is born.
Turn the clock ahead a few million years and fans — either the flat version, uchiwa; or the folded variety, sensu (see pun above) — have become as Japanese as . . .
Ninety-nine percent humidity, sweat-soaked shirts, and a lack of effective deodorant.
Yet, such fans also waft with romance. The flat versions especially are viewed as harbingers of summer.
To most Japanese, uchiwa resonate with images of high school baseball, rooftop beer gardens, showers of shimmering fireworks and now the sweltering threat of nuclear meltdown.
For the last and best defense against the accursed heat brought by possible power shortages is the humble uchiwa. Who needs Tepco when you have an uchiwa?
And what is an uchiwa? Anything flat will serve.
I have even spied overheated train passengers, gulping air like goldfish, turn their train tickets into impromptu uchiwa.
Which is like fanning yourself with a stick of Juicy Fruit. Before chewing. It only helps in your mind. Which in that setting is perhaps already fried.
But Japanese all associate “uchiwa” with the concept of “cool.” In the West, when one pulls up an image of “cool” what comes to mind first is perhaps a gaggle of penguins on an ice floe. But in Japan it’s some guy in his underwear lying on the tatami with an uchiwa in his hand.
And this connects to the romance of Japanese summertime. Uchiwa are such a key ingredient in that romance that in the frigid nights of bleakest winter I sometimes wonder if everyone grabbed an uchiwa and started fanning, we might trick the Japanese weather gods into ushering in a heat wave.
The Japanese fan that foreigners most often envision is not the pervasive uchiwa, but rather the folding variety, the sensu. And, true, many Japanese also prefer sensu to uchiwa, particularly for convenience.
For a folding fan can fit snugly into a bag or even a pocket. While carrying an effective uchiwa is like traveling with a banana leaf.
But it is for a different application that foreigners turn to sensu. They make damn good souvenirs. Small, attractive, inexpensive and quintessentially Japanese (or East Asian for that matter) — when stuck as to what to get “Aunt Mable” or the old gang back at the loading dock, the wise foreigner always selects a folding fan.
I know because all my relatives and friends now have drawers of them. Or did until they found a genuine Japanese folding fan can fetch a nice price at a yard sale.
So much so that people back home no longer look upon me as a friend or family member. I am instead their wholesale dealer.
Meanwhile, uchiwa do not fly off the yard sale tables quite so fast.
“It’s a Japanese fan,” says my cousin, trying to push her sales.
“But it doesn’t fold,” says her almost customer.
“So what? It can double as a butter knife.”
But real fans of fans don’t need such added value. Or even a nuclear meltdown.
All we need is a sizzling hot, breezeless day.
Which is the very definition of Japanese summer.