Japanese war fan

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Antique Japanese (samurai) Edo period gunsen war fan, made of iron, bamboo and lacquer depicting the sun (1800-50) on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, California.

A war fan is a fan designed for use in warfare. Several types of war fans were used by the samurai class of feudal Japan. There are several different types of Japanese war fans, each had a different look and purpose.


War fans varied in size, materials, shape, and use. One of the most significant uses was as a signalling device.[1] Signalling fans came in two varieties:

  • a real fan that has wood or metal ribs with lacquered paper attached to the ribs and a metal outer cover
  • a solid open fan made from metal and/or wood, very similar to the gunbai used today by sumo referees.[2]

The commander would raise or lower his fan and point in different ways to issue commands to the soldiers, which would then be passed on by other forms of visible and audible signalling.[3]

War fans could also be used as weapons, The art of fighting with war fans is tessenjutsu.[1]

Types of Japanese war fans[edit]

A tessen (iron fan) on display in Iwakuni Castle, Japan
  • Gunsen (軍扇?) were folding fans used by the average warriors to cool themselves off. They were made of wood, bronze, brass or a similar metal for the inner spokes, and often used thin iron or other metals for the outer spokes or cover, making them lightweight but strong.[1] Warriors would hang their fans from a variety of places, most typically from the belt or the breastplate, though the latter often impeded the use of a sword or a bow.[citation needed]
  • Tessen (鉄扇?) were folding fans with outer spokes made of heavy plates of iron which were designed to look like normal, harmless folding fans or solid clubs shaped to look like a closed fan. Samurai could take these to places where swords or other overt weapons were not allowed, and some swordsmanship schools included training in the use of the tessen as a weapon. The tessen was also used for fending off arrows and darts, as a throwing weapon, and as an aid in swimming.[3]
  • Gunbai (Gumbai), Gunpai (Gumpai) or dansen uchiwa (軍配?) were large solid open fans that could be solid iron, metal with wooden core, or solid wood, which were carried by high-ranking officers.[4] They were used to ward off arrows, as a sunshade, and to signal to troops.[5][6]

War fans in history and folklore[edit]

Japanese gunsen war fans

One particularly famous legend involving war fans concerns a direct confrontation between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima. Kenshin burst into Shingen's command tent on horseback, having broken through his entire army, and attacked; his sword was deflected by Shingen's war fan. It is not clear whether Shingen parried with a tessen, a dansen uchiwa, or some other form of fan. Nevertheless, it was quite rare for commanders to fight directly, and especially for a general to defend himself so effectively when taken so off-guard.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune is said to have defeated the great warrior monk Saitō Musashibō Benkei with a tessen.

Araki Murashige is said to have used a tessen to save his life when the great warlord Oda Nobunaga sought to assassinate him. Araki was invited before Nobunaga, and was stripped of his swords at the entrance to the mansion, as was customary. When he performed the customary bowing at the threshold, Nobunaga intended to have the room's sliding doors slammed shut onto Araki's neck, killing him. However, Araki supposedly placed his tessen in the grooves in the floor, blocking the doors from closing.[3]

The Yagyū clan, sword instructors to the Tokugawa shoguns, included tessenjutsu in their martial arts school, the Yagyū Shinkage-ryū.

In popular culture[edit]


  • in Squire, the third book of Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small fantasy tetrology, it's brought out that women of the warrior class in the Yamani empire, that world's analog of our Japan, carry and are adept at using shukusen, heavy fans made of fine steel with silk webs. The tips of the shukusen's ribs are razor-sharp, allowing the women to travel in safety without appearing to be armed. They maintain their skill by practicing in groups using the "fan-toss" game, in which open (and thus potentially lethal) shukusen are tossed in stylised patterns and increasing speed from woman to woman.
  • in Otherwise Engaged, by Amanda Quick, the female protagonist, Amity Doncaster, carries and uses a steel-ribbed and -webbed tessen.

Video games,


  • in Avatar the Last Airbender, the Kyoshi Warriors possessed these tessen and used them in combat against the fire nation.
  • In Nickelodeon's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle April's primary weapon in the series is a tessen, given to her by Master Splinter after she requested to have a weapon to protect herself. Her Tessen is used similar to a how a boomerang works, coming back to the thrower after hitting the intended target, she also uses its metal edges similar how a person would use a knife.
  • In Code Lyoko Yumi weapon in Lyoko is two tessens. when the fans are thrown they appear as disks with blades and hit the intended target before returning to Yumi, this weapon served as primarily a long distance weapon.
  • Throughout the Naruto series the Sand Village ninja Temari is known to wield a war fan. Temari's fan however is quite large and is almost as tall as her. By means of the fan, she creates giant wind gusts to attack her enemies at a long range. At close range she uses it as a club, which is the most common use of the war fan in tessenjutsu.
  • Hakuoro fights with one in Utawarerumono.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c William E. Deal, Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, p.167
  2. ^ Louis Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, p.267
  3. ^ a b c Oscar Ratti, Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai: A Survey of the Martial Arts of Feudal Japan, p.296-304
  4. ^ Jōchi Daigaku, JSTOR (Organization), Monumenta Nipponica, Volume 16, p.71-p.73
  5. ^ Karl M. Schwarz, Netsuke Subjects: A Study on the NetsukeThemes With Reference to Their Interpretation and Symbolism, p.116
  6. ^ A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor: In All Countries and in All Times, George Cameron Stone, Courier Dover Publications, 1999 P.256


  • Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, Edison, NJ: Castle Books (1973).