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Fly fanboys in the living room

The entertaining traditional Japanese sport of tosenkyo is Zen . . . ish

by Raju Thakrar

Parents the world over would surely prefer their children not to throw things about. It’s just plain bad manners, among other things. But Atsushi Kikuchi, a serious-looking father of two boys, positively encourages it. And, he evenmaintains, his sons’ ballistic behavior has produced considerable benefits for life at his family’s home.

“My family environment is the most harmonious it’s ever been,” boasts the 49-year-old post-office manager.

So what is it that Kikuchi allows his sons to throw about with such wild and reckless abandon?

The answer: fans. You know, the folding variety that when opened form a wedgelike shape. No heat-fearing person in Japan would dare venture out in summer without one.

But don’t get the wrong idea: It’s not as if the fans are launched through the air ninja-style to swipe out sworn enemies — or even to knock down old ladies for that matter. They are used to play a game called tosenkyo (fan-tossing), that cultivates a respectful mind, increases concentration and brings families closer together. Families like the Kikuchis.

Armed with my own fan, I decided to discover for myself what would drive a person to toss one of these things about instead of using it to keep themselves cool. So last Sunday I joined a practice session at the Okatei tea-ceremony building in the grounds of the National Olympics Youth Memorial Center in Yoyogi, Tokyo.

My first impression on entering was that of an eclectic group of people gathered there: women, children and a couple of elderly men. Unlike most hobbies in Japan that tend to attract a graying sector of society, this was clearly one without age or gender restrictions. About 20 people usually turn up to these monthly practice sessions that last from 1 to 9 p.m.

Two 4.5-meter-long pieces of red cloth were laid out side by side at one end of the room, with cushions placed at either end on which opponents were sitting facing each other. They took turns in throwing the fans at a fan-shaped silk figurine known as a cho (butterfly) on a 18-cm-high stand called a makura (pillow) that was made out of paulownia wood.

The aim of the game is to knock the cho off the makura. But actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

In practice, how the cho falls and the relationship between it, the fan and the makura give rise to 31 different set plays that are each worth a different number of points. For example, no points are gained when the fan misses the fan, in a set play known as hototogisu (little cuckoo). Each set play takes its name from the first few vowels of a traditional waka (31-syllable) poem. However, when you knock down both the cho and the makura, 20 points are deducted, in a play called fukukara (“from blowing”).

Fancier situations — and perhaps a bit far-fetched to the novice — include when the knocked-down cho is left upright with one end of the fan on top of it and the other end on top of the makura. Called Oeyama (Mount Oe), this play is worth 50 points, but the chances of that happening are one in a million.

My instructor for the day was 66-year-old Toru Jian, who used to run an izakaya (Japanese-style pub) in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, where the punters could play tosenkyo.

But first things first: How to hold the fan, which can weigh up to 20 grams and be made of up to eight thin slots of wood. When opened up, the pivot part where the slots of wood meet is placed on top of the bent index finger, and then the fleshy part of the thumb is placed on the ends of the slots to steady the fan.

Among the 10 or so lobs that I managed, most nosedived into the ground. Contrary to how it appeared, this tossing business was actually quite difficult.

“You’re relying on your strength too much. The fan is not heavy, so all you have to do is flick your wrist to get it to float,” said Jian. “The key is to not aim for the cho but the top of the makura.”

This sounded very much like what a certain kyudo (Japanese archery) master is reputed to have said to a student long ago: “Don’t aim for the target.”

Oh so very Zen — and yet not.

Jian was trying to make me realize that, due to the way the fan somersaults through the air, not aiming for the target is the best way to actually hit it.

But enough of these existential trivialities, and onto an actual match.

The opponent for my debut encounter was Shogo Kikuchi, an 11-year-old boy who has been playing tosenkyo for three years. On the judge’s signal, we bowed to each other and threw dice to determine who would start. I won, so I started.

Seated in a seiza position, knees completely bent under my body, and the stipulated 1.62 meters away from the target, I lent forward — which is permissible if your bottom doesn’t rise up off the top of your heels — and released the fan with the flick of my wrist from my extended arm. Miraculously, it hit the target! The judge called out, “Akikaze (autumn wind),” an 8-point play where the fan ended up against the makura and above the cho that had fallen down.

Kikuchi, on the other hand, seemed nervous and kept missing. After five throws each, we switched ends to have another five tries. In the end, my total score was 30 points to Kikuchi’s 19 points. I had won, but in the timeless Japanese spirit of sportsmanship, I was required to bow to my opponent, and I did my best to try not to gloat.

Tosenkyo has come a long way since it was, apparently, invented around 1773 by Toraku Sanjinkisen, a resident of Kyoto. One day when he was taking a nap, it is said that he woke to find a butterfly perched on his pillow. Being a cruel sort, Toraku picked up a fan and aimed it at the insect, which flew away. The fan, though, remained on top of the pillow. Finding this interesting, Toraku tried again — but this time the fan didn’t stay on top. That’s when he came up with the idea of placing a target atop the stand.

The popularity of the game spread throughout Japan after people who tried it in the Imperial capital that was Kyoto continued playing after they returned to their home provinces. But perhaps because people’s memories were not so good back then — or the trip back home was so drink-fueled — every region developed its own distinctive way of playing, using different kinds of fans, stands and targets. At one point, apparently, 30 different variations of the game existed.

In fact, the tosenkyo-playing craze became so widespread that people started betting on games, which prompted the government to issue two separate orders in the early 19th century prohibiting the pastime.

Then, at the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the introduction of Western forms of entertainment dealt a further blow to the popularity of tosenkyo, so that by the end of World War II, almost nobody apart from a few geisha was playing it.

In 2000, the Nihon Tosenkyo Renmei (Japan Fan-Tossing Association) was founded in order to revive the game’s fortunes and promote a national standard for the game. They now have more than 100 full-time members and 1,000 others on their books who like to take the odd toss.

“We’ve even had handicapped people play by placing the target on top of a table,” says Jian. “In the future, I’d like to give blind people an opportunity to play by ringing a bell above the target to let them know where it is. I reckon they’ll be really good, as they have great instincts.”

There are also plans to promote tosenkyo abroad.

“The organizers of a Japanese culture festival that takes place in Paris every year were very interested to hear that we wanted to participate,” said Sakiko Tokizaki, 50, the association’s secretariat.

Tokizaki has been tossing fans for 18 years, and has no desire to stop.

“The paper used in the fans is very sensitive to weather changes, so every time I play is different,” he said. “This makes it hard to direct the fan where I want it to go.”

The next tosenkyo practice at the National Olympics Youth Memorial Center in Tokyo will take place on Aug. 10 (1-9 p.m.), with all-comers welcome at ¥1,000 per person. A tournament will be held at the same venue on Sept. 7; participation is ¥2,500 a head.