SENSU (folding fans)

April 16, 2007

by Chika Hisano; Shoko Fukuzaki

“Sensu” (picture A) are folding type fans and “Uchiwa” (picture B) are the rigid variety. Sensu were invented in Japan, and Uchiwa in China. Both are used in modern day Japan, but often for different purposes and occasions. In this article we will focus on Sensu.

The angle the fan is opened to varies from between 90 -180 degrees, with around 120 degrees being the norm. The shape of the unfolded fan broadens towards the ends and this shape is known as “Sue-hirogari” in Japanese. For a very long time, this has been considered lucky. Sensu have a lot of uses; some are used in dance, some purely for decoration, and so on. All in all, there are about ten kinds of sensu, and some of them, and their uses, are outlined below.

Varieties of Sensu

“Hi-ougi” are used in ceremonies and for decoration. This is the oldest style of fan and they are made from thin slats of cypress wood that are stitched together with silk thread.

“Kawahori-sen” are generally used for decoration. They are a paper type fan which followed on from Hi-ougi, and became popular in the Heian era.

“Cha-sen” are generally used in the tea ceremony. There are two sizes of this fan, according to the gender of the user. Those for men measure about 18 cm, and those for women about 15cm.

“Mai-ougi” are the fans used in Japanese dance. These are a very common type of fan, however, they show certain differences between those used by men and women, for example, in color, design, size, or in other subtle ways.

History of the Fan

The first fans came into existence in Kyoto around 1200 years ago (the early part of the Heian period.) Therefore, we call those fans made in Kyoto “Kyo-sensu”. On the other hand, those which were made in Edo (present day Tokyo), took the name “Edo-sensu”. Simply put, each fan takes its name from the area in which it was made.

The first fans made were Hi-ougi, and at the time of their conception, monks and public officials were known to have written on slender strips of wood. These strips were mainly used for notations, scribblings and for the practice of Chinese characters, as paper, at that time, was a very precious commodity. Out of necessity and neatness, these wooden strips were often piled up and joined together, and became a sort of wooden notebook. Thereafter, the practice of drawing beautiful pictures on the strips was started, and they came to be used by both men and women, nobles and princesses. At this time, they were basically used as a tool of communication, so their use as a fan or cooling device was not the original intention. In actual fact, many of the early Hi-ougi were far too heavy to be used as fans.

The use of paper began to spread during the middle part of the Heian era, and paper fans for summer, Kawahori-sen, were produced in direct contrast to the Hi-ougi variety employed in the winter. Following their widespread use in Japan, they were exported to China, and even spread throughout Europe. Those fans that found their way to Europe were re-imported towards the end of the Edo period in the form of “Kinu-sen”, which are the variety of fan made from tightly stretched cloth. This occurrence had a strong impact on the size and use of the conventional fan.


The Kyo-sensu was created more than 1000 years ago and has since been employed in a number of ways, changing to suit the times, and sought after by all manner of people. There has been an increase in the demand for more fashionable sensu of late, with different designs, colors and patterns being developed to fit with the modern market. There are even sensu available now with characters from popular culture printed on them.

Regardless of age or sex, a lot of Japanese and foreign visitors to Kyoto buy Kyo-sensu as souvenirs, both for their beauty, and because they are very compact and easy to carry.

These days, sensu may be sold more often than uchiwa because of their convenience. Moreover, sensu are used more often than uchiwa on formal occasions, for example, in certain ceremonies and at special events. A lot of women carry sensu, not only as a means of keeping cool, but also because they add to the feminine appeal of the user. Sensu are also very practical as an accessory, and go equally well with both Japanese and Western style clothing.

The Sensu Business

There are many shops and businesses dealing in fans throughout Japan. However, some of the best are to be found in Kyoto itself. We visited one of the nicest shops in town and interviewed the people there about their business and the kinds of customers they attract. The name of the shop is ‘Onishi Kyosendou’ and the interview and shop details can be found below.

Q1: How many different colors of sensu do you stock, and which are the most popular colors for men and women?

A1: We stock about 3,000 different kinds. Men prefer the quieter colors, such as dark blue, gray, etc. Women generally go for the pastel colors, like pink, soft oranges, blues and greens.

Q2: What are the most popular patterns or images drawn on the sensu, and which are the most popular among men and women?

A2: The most popular images for both men and women are those offering Kyoto scenes; Kyoto landmarks, Gion Festival, Daimonji, Kiyomizu Temple, Higashi-yama, etc. Men tend to go for drawings of landscapes, fish (ayu, killifish …), beasts and birds, fireflies and dragonflies. Women seem to be happier with cherry blossoms, butterflies and autumn flowers.

Q3: How many different types of fan material are your fans made from, and which are most popular for men and women?

A3: We have about 5–10 different kinds, and hemp, cotton and silk are the most popular among both men and women.

Q4: What are the rare colors, patterns or materials used in fans these days?

A4: The images of crests and dragons are fairly rare.

Q5: What is the average age of your customers, would you say?

A5: Our customers are from all age groups, from people in their twenties to the over sixties.

Q6: Do foreign customers come here often, and what kinds of fans do they buy?

A6: Yes, we have foreign customers and they do like certain things. For example, they like fans with vivid coloring like reds, blacks and pinks. They also like traditional patterns which show cherry blossoms, Maiko, and that sort of thing. The material they most often choose is silk.

Onishi Kyosendou

18, Ishibashi-cho


Teramachi, Sanjo-dori


Kyoto 604-8036

Tel: (075) 221 – 0334

Opening times: 10.00am–9.00pm

(Friday – Wednesday)

Closed on Thursdays

Kyo-sensu are a beautiful example of traditional Japanese culture, and in our opinion should continue to be used and loved forever. We recommend you pay a visit to this shop and see the beautiful display of fans they have to offer. 

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