Incidental mention of fans occurs in the oldest official annals of the country. Thus, under date 763 A.D., we read of Imperial permission being granted to a courtier to bring his staff and fan into the palace precincts, on the score of age and infirmity. Apparently fans were then tabooed by strict etiquette, which is remarkable, as they afterwards became an indispensable adjunct of Court dress for both sexes.
Fans are of two kinds,-two chief kinds, that is, for there is an immense number of minor varieties,-the round fan not capable of being shut (uchiwa), and the folding fan (ōgi or sensu). The fans of early days would seem to have been all of the non-folding type,-no wonder, seeing that the first natural fan was a palmleaf. The Japanese pride themselves on being the inventors of the folding fan, which they assert to have been borrowed from them by the Chinese as late as the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). A noble lady, widow of the youthful hero Atsumori, is credited with the idea. At the temple of Miei-dō in Kyōto, whither she had retired to hide her grief under the garb of a nun, she cured the abbot of a fever by fanning him with a folding fan made of paper, over which she muttered incantations; and to the present day the priests of this temple are considered special adepts in the manufacture of fans, whence the name of Miei-dō adopted by many fan-shops all over the country.
Of the less common varieties of the fan, perhaps the strangest are the giant kinds carried at the festival of the Sun-Goddess in Ise and by the firemen of Kyōto, and especially the war-fans formerly used by military commanders to direct with and give force to their orders. Iron was the material usually employed, and the ornamentation consisted on one side of a red sun on a gold ground, on the other of a silver moon and stars on a black or dark blue ground. Ordinary fans are made of paper over split bamboo. Japanese fans excel in cheapness as in elegance, ten sen (2 1/2d.) being the usual price for a plain folding fan, three or four sen for one of the non-folding kind. Fans are used as bellows; they are even used as trays to hand things on. A man of the lower class will often hold a partially opened fan in front of his mouth when addressing a superior, so as to obviate the possibility of his breath defiling the superior's face; but to fan oneself vigorously in the presence of a superior is not good manners.
To attempt a description of the quaint and poetical conceits with which Japanese fan-makers adorn their wares, would be to embark on a list of almost all the art-motives of the country; for nearly all are made to contribute. The little picture is often accompanied by a verse of poetry in black or gold letters, or else there is only the poetry and no picture.
Fans have been extensively used as vehicles for advertisements; but the Japanese advertiser of the older school generally disarmed criticism by the, so to say, apologetic moderation with which he practised that most detestable of all arts or rather artifices. In these latter days, however, when Europeanisation has corrupted everything, one has much to suffer from while fanning oneself on a hot day. Art has surely sounded its lowest depths when it comes to pourtraying a lager-beer bottle on one side of a fan, and to providing a railway time-table on the other.
Book recommended - Fans of Japan, by Mrs. Salwey; also a paper by the same in Vol. II. of the Transactions of the Japan Society.