An exploration of folding fans’ history, symbolism

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Featuring a plethora of folding fans from across the ages, the Suntory Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, “In the Country of Fans, Japan,” offers a unique look at the history of an iconic, yet familiar staple of Japanese artistry until Jan. 20.

Located in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, the museum traces the roots and cultural significance of folding fans. Through the hazy mists of history, records indicate this Japanese invention first appeared in China and on the Korean Peninsula as early as the end of the 10th century in the form of gifts.

Domestically, fans have evolved in style and function since their invention. There are traditionally two types of Japanese fans — hiōgi from the Nara Period, made by connecting thin slices of wood together, and kamiōgi, invented around the start of the Heian Period and made by pasting thin pieces of paper or silk onto a bamboo skeleton.

However, their purpose stretched beyond simply cooling people off. During the mid-Heian Period, fans became a crucial accessory for public life among nobility; not only were they integral to rituals, but they were also used as tools to properly reflect time, place and occasion.

Fans have also served as an enduring motif across numerous art forms — depictions on folding screens, dyed fabric, lacquerware and other crafts have persisted since ancient times.

When opened, a fan’s folds are wider than its base; Japanese associate this shape with luck for its similarity to the word suehirogari, meaning “better development in the future” (literally, “the end being wider.”) The unique design also invited the creation of more daring fans that added flair to daily life, appropriate for a tool so entwined with Japanese art and cultural history.

Suntory Museum of Art is in Tokyo Midtown, directly connected to Roppongi Station or three minutes from Nogizaka Station.

Suntory Museum of Art

TEL: 03-3479-8600
Tokyo Midtown Galleria 3F,
9-7-4 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-8643, Japan