Characteristics of “Three Major Uchiwa” You See in Japanese Summer
Uchiwa or the handheld fan was indispensable during the hot Japanese summers to cool off in the old days, when there were neither electric fans nor air conditioners like today. The common shape of uchiwa is made of a pie-shaped fan part and a supporting handle to grab and move to create a flow of wind.
History of Uchiwa
The history of the fan is very old, and wall paintings of ancient Egypt, and ancient Chinese books also recorded its existence. The fan was introduced to Japan between the 4th century and the beginning of the 8th century A.D., during what is called “Tumulus Period” in Japanese history.
What came to Japan first was a Chinese fan called “sashiba”, and it had a longer handle than the contemporary uchiwa. “Sashiba” evolved in Japan and by the 10th century, people started to call the smaller “sashiba” as uchiwa. Their purpose was to fan, but it rather evolved as a tool to maintain dignity for the nobles, government officials, and priests and they used it to hide their face or shoo away bugs.
Afterwards the shape and material of uchiwa changed as time went by, and at the end of the 16th century, a prototype of contemporary uchiwa was produced with bamboo and Japanese paper, as a fan to wind and cool off.
Once the 17th century arrived, uchiwa’s popularity grew among ordinary people, and it was widely used in everyday life, not only as a tool to cool off, but also to make fire for cooking, or to use as a fashion item. Cultural contents such as various types of poems or ukiyoe prints started to adorn the paper part, and uchiwa became popular as an item to look at and appreciate its beauty. About the same time mass production of uchiwa became possible, and fan producing locations started to form across Japan.
In the 19th century, after the Meiji Period started, uchiwa picked up a function as an advertisement medium, and many uchiwa were produced, with store names, merchandize names, or even movie actors printed on them. In the USA, artistic uchiwa with ukiyoe or other beautiful prints became quite popular, and they were exported in large quantities.
In the mid-20th century, due to the bamboo shortage and ease of production, uchiwa made with plastic material became the mainstream. But with the spread of electric fans and air conditioners, demand for uchiwa gradually went down.
Nevertheless traditional uchiwa, made of bamboo and Japanese paper like in the old days, is still indispensable, as it is strongly associated with the elegant Japanese summer. They are still loved today by many people, making familiar scenes in summer festivals and fireworks.
The Three Major Uchiwa in Japan
Three locations are famous for their production of traditional uchiwa, Chiba Prefecture for its Bo Shu Uchiwa, Kyoto Prefecture for its Kyo Uchiwa, and Kagawa Prefecture for its Marugame Uchiwa. Combining them together, they are called “Three Major Uchiwa” in Japan.
1. “Bo Shu Uchiwa”, Chiba Prefecture
Characteristic; A round handle that uses the natural shape of the bamboo
Production of uchiwa in the Kanto Region started at the end of the 18th century. The southern part of the Boso Peninsula in today’s Chiba Prefecture, was then called “Bo Shu”. Bo Shu produced Simon bamboo, the main component of the “Edo (Tokyo) Uchiwa” and contracted to produce only the bone/framework of uchiwa. Afterwards the production developed rapidly, and uchiwa bones became a major product of Bo Shu. After the arrival of the 20th century, Bo Shu started to be engaged in the production of complete fans.
Bo Shu’s uchiwa production expanded even more after the Kanto Earthquake in 1923. During this disaster, fan wholesalers’ town of Edo was burnt down. Soon afterward many of them decided to move to Bo Shu, an area that produced bamboo and had proven experience in uchiwa production. This is how “Edo uchiwa” became “Bo Shu uchiwa”. As one of the three major uchiwa types in Japan, its production methods and techniques are passed down to the present.
The Simon bamboo used in “Bo Shu uchiwa” is very well suited for production of uchiwa bones, with its long intervals between bamboo joints and its high flexibility. The characteristics of “Bo Shu uchiwa” is the round handle that uses the natural shape of the bamboo. Then the following part of the stem is shredded into 48 to 64 equal pieces. Woven with thread and spread, it forms a beautiful semicircular pattern.
There are as many as 21 steps in the production process, and there is only one artisan left that could complete the detailed, mind-numbing steps all alone. Finding and training successors remains a major challenge for “Bo Shu uchiwa”, but we sincerely hope that the challenge be overcome in order to leave this beautiful art to the future generations.
2. “Kyo Uchiwa”, Kyoto Prefecture
Characteristics: Fan and handle parts are produced separately.
The origin of “Kyo uchiwa” is found in the Korean fan that came from overseas between the middle to end of the 14th century. It then spread among the nobles in Kyoto, and its history continues to the present.
“Kyo uchiwa” is also called as “Miyako uchiwa” or “Gosho uchiwa’, and characteristically the fan part and handles are manufactured separately. Thin bones are arranged in a radial pattern, then Japanese papers are pasted on the bones, and finally, a handle is attached to it. The number of bamboo bones sandwiched by the Japanese papers ranges from 50 to 100, and uchiwa with more bones is considered to be a more luxurious item. Uchiwa with 100 bones merits a special name and it is treated as an item for display. The handles are made from bamboo, cedar or even expensive lacquered wood.
The production of “Kyo uchiwa” is completed in 16 steps altogether. You can enjoy gorgeous and elegant decorative designs, just what you expect from Kyoto, unlike other uchiwa. You can use it as a fan in everyday life or as a decoration for your room.
Store Handling “Kyo uchiwa”
Komaruya Sumii: Map
3. “Marugame Uchiwa”, Kagawa Prefecture
Characteristic: Thin flat handles
The production method of “Marugame uchiwa”, in Marugame City, Kagawa Prefecture, is said to have been established by the beginning of the 17th century. Then a souvenir uchiwa was developed for the Konpira-Gu shrine worshippers, and the history of “Marugame uchiwa” has started.
It followed that a Marugame samurai brought in the techniques used with “Edo uchiwa”. The feudal domain of Marugame then was under a financial strain, and it encouraged its people to manufacture fans with the new techniques. So the fan manufacturing has spread among the lower-rank samurai and towns folks.
The fan production had its ups and downs through the changing times, but the production has gradually increased in the export sector.
Meanwhile, a wholesaler in the Marugame, Tomiyacho area started producing uchiwa with a flat handle, the origin of today’s “Marugame uchiwa”. Yoshida, having quickly mastered the techniques, started production in his factory at home. But uchiwa with the round handle was dominating the market back then, and his flat handle uchiwa was not easily accepted. It was called “Shioya Hirae uchiwa” at the time.
In 1894 a corporation was established for the first time in the uchiwa industry. Uchiwa picked up its new role as an advertisement medium, and thanks to the technical innovations, mass production in factories started. As uchiwa with round handles are difficult to mass-produce, uchiwa with flat handles became the mainstream.
Today about 90% of Japan’s uchiwa production takes place in the Marugame area, and “Marugame uchiwa” dominates the uchiwa market. But most of “Marugame uchiwa” uses plastic materials today. The lack of successors that can pass on the techniques of producing uchiwa made of bamboo is also a concern here. We would like to keep an eye on its activities going forward, with the hope that the techniques of “Marugame uchiwa” with its history over 370 years should be passed to the future generations.