Japanese war fan
War fans varied in size, materials, shape, and use. One of the most significant uses was as a signalling device. 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.
Types of Japanese war fans
- 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. 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.
- 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 knives and darts, as a throwing weapon, and as an aid in swimming.
- 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. They were used to ward off arrows, as a sunshade, and to signal to troops.
War fans in history and folklore
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.
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.
In popular culture
War fans appear in books, video games and television, a few examples are Squire, the third book of Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small, where it's called a shukusen, Otherwise Engaged, by Amanda Quick, the Koei Tecmo series Samurai Warriors (Sengoku Musou), Samurai Warriors 2 (Sengoku Musou 2), Fatal Fury, The King of Fighters, Mortal Kombat, Dragon Quest IX, Team Fortress 2, Touhou Project, Capcom series, Sengoku Basara, Avatar the Last Airbender, Nickelodeon's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Code Lyoko, the Power Rangers franchise, throughout the Naruto series, and Utawarerumono.
In the manga/anime series Naruto, Temari wields a giant iron fan that can create powerful gusts of wind capable of leveling the surrounding landscape. Two of the series main antagonist Obito Uchiha and Madara Uchiha both wield a Gunbai known as Gunbai Uchiwa (軍配団扇, Gunbai Uchiwa, Literally meaning: army arrangement fan) is a non-folding fan, carved from a unique spirit tree from which only ritualistic instruments are made. This Gunbai has been passed down between Uchiha clansmen for generations. Madara Uchiha was known for having great expertise in using it. In addition the symbol of the Uchiha Clan is a fan which is a reference to uchiwa (団扇, paper fan) which is another way of pronouncing the clan's name.
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- Louis Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, p.267
- Oscar Ratti, Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai: A Survey of the Martial Arts of Feudal Japan, p.296-304
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- Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, Edison, NJ: Castle Books (1973).