Uchiwa Japanese Fans
The revival of Fukakusa Uchiwa by Komaruya Sumii
Uchiwa are flat, non-folding Japanese fans which have been a familiar part of daily life for all classes in Japan since ancient times. Many people think of the folding style fan as most common to Japan. These are much harder to make and thus also more expensive. For common, everyday use, the uchiwa is the casual breeze-making tool of choice. This month, KVG interviewed Komaruya Sumii, the current head of one of Kyoto's oldest uchiwa shops, Fukakusa Uchiwa, which creates a unique variety of uchiwa fans that few other makers in Japan can make. Fukakusa uchiwa fans making stopped for about 100 years. Komaruya Sumii revived the business and today it thrives again like never before.
The history of Uchiwa
It is not clear when uchiwa were invented or how the idea arrived in Japan. Historical records indicate that the first uchiwa fans were brought from China in the 5th century. In the very beginning, these fans were sacred tools used in Buddhist ceremonies and rituals. The earliest designs were not rounded as they are today. Instead, they were more like rectangles mounted on a stick. The Japanese imperial family and other noble families used these fans to block the sun and to discreetly hide their faces from the public on the few occasions that they ventured into the world of daily life beyond the palaces and estates where they spent their days.
As time went by, uchiwa changed their shape and design and by the 10th century developed into the rounded type we know today but remained unpainted. Historical records show that by the Kamakura period (1185-1333) uchiwa fans had become a part of daily life, especially in the summer season, for people of all classes. The most luxurious fans of this type, made of silk or even leather, were reserved for the nobles and others of high rank.
In the Muromachi period (1333-1568), people started to paint on uchiwa for fun. Popular motifs included people, flowers, birds and natural scenes. In the Sengoku civil war period (1467-1568), uchiwa developed into an important accessory for samurai lords. Large uchiwa fans were painted with the family crest of the samurai lord's clan and prominently placed in front of the clan's main tents.
The development of the fans continued into the Edo period (1600-1867) and soon they were produced all over the country with unique local designs and motifs. Fans from this period were decorated with folk culture images that focused on historical references, or local cultural symbols. Increasingly, such fans became identified with women who especially prized them as fashion accessories of the utmost importance. Today, uchiwa fans are a symbol of summer and plastic ones, of all styles and designs, are used by many companies as marketing tools.
Uchiwa specialist and entrepreneur
The Sumii family are descendant from a samurai family that served the Imperial court. One day, the emperor asked his fan master to begin producing uchiwa made with bamboo from the Fukakusa district of Kyoto (a little southeast of JR Kyoto Station). Fukakusa was and still is famous for its seemingly endless bamboo groves. Ms. Keiko Sumii, the current head of the fan business feels that the emperor was trying to stimulate the local economy by relying on local bamboo.
In the early days, the servants of the Sumii samurai family were the fan craft workers. Later, the family split into three branches, and the head of one of the branches decided to devote himself to uchiwa fan design and production. Historical records show that the Sumii family were top fan makers in Kyoto already in 1624.
One of Komaruya's specialty fans is called the Kyo Maru uchiwa (Kyoto round uchiwa). These are specially produced as an important accessory for the geiko and maiko of Kyoto's five hanamachi flowertowns (where geiko and maiko live, study, work and play). If you see an uchiwa fan displayed in a highclass restaurant with orange writing on it, then that is a fan that has been left behind as a souvenir by a high ranking geiko or maiko. Their names are written in orange, alongside their teahouse symbols or crests.
The Uchiwa Creation Process
Every part of Komaruya's uchiwa making process is done by hand. Komaruya has several craftsmen, some very experienced and some in different stages of learning the craft. They sit together in the workshop and steadily produce perfection without compromise or hesitation. The so-called ''bone'' of the fans is made with special, high-quality bamboo from the Tokushima district on the island of Shikoku (Japan's fourth largest island). One master bone maker has been using three-year-old bamboo from this area for more than 50 years.
Though every step in the fan making process is important some are more important than others. These usually require more time and special care. For example one of the final stages involves wrapping a 5-millemeter wide strip of thin paper, covered with glue on one side, around the outer edge of the fan. In another process, special wooden spatulas are used to smooth the paper glued along the bones to make the ''shadows'' of the bones or ribs sharper.
Since the fans are created by a chain of different craft workers, a poorly executed stage of work never escapes notice. The next craft worker in the production stage immediately notices that an imperfection has escaped the vigilant eyes of the previous specialist. In this case, the piece is returned to be worked on a little longer. Teamwork like this is common to many craft processes in Japan and the quality of the finished products is remarkably high and consistent as a result.
The Revival of Fukakusa Uchiwa
The Komaruya fan brand produced by Fukakusa Uchiwa spread throughout Japan during the peaceful Edo period (1600-1867). Kyoto was Japan's leading pilgrimage destination as most of the country's religious institutions had their headquarters in the Imperial capital. Nearly everyone who journeyed to Kyoto bought a Fukakusa Uchiwa as a memory of their trip or as a gift for people back home.
Widespread and rapid acceptance of Western ways during the Meiji period (1868-1912) had a negative impact on all kinds of traditional industries. The uchiwa fan business was no exception and Komaruya had to stop producing Fukakusa Uchiwa. However, the Komaruya tradition continued in the form of Kyo Maru uchiwa and other uchiwa styles.
It took the research investigations of the fan industry by a Japanese university professor to bring Komaruya back to life. When the professor met the eldest daughter of the Sumii family as part of his investigations of prominent uchiwa producing families, they immediately connected and started talking about reviving the business.
They also had the idea of producing new kinds of fans and not just the standard designs. Traditional Fukakusa Uchiwa were mainly decorated with nature scenes and plants. One side of the fan was left blank and often used by poets to showcase their work. The new fan design Ms. Sumii and the professor came up with involved using classic scenes of Kyoto that they had found in a famous book called Miyako Meisho Zukai (Famous Scenes of the Capital). The book, published in 1780, was a picture travel guide to Japan's Imperial capital. The book includes hundreds of famous Kyoto scenes: important festivals, famous temples and shrines, and daily life. The book was extremely popular extraordinary number of copies were sold. Today, this book is an important historical source of information on life in Kyoto in those times.
Ms. Sumii and the professor selected the finest and most vivid scenes from Miyako Meisho Zukai and painted them on fans, first by hand and then, later, using special color printers.
The new Fukakusa Uchiwa show 114 exquisite scenes from festivals and locations around the capital in the Edo period. Other Fukakusa Uchiwa show classic pre-modern scenes of Osaka, Shiga and Edo (Tokyo).
Komaruya's shop was designed to perfectly display their line of Fukakusa Uchiwa to customers. When you walk in, you feel as if you have entered a museum of old images of Kyoto. And it becomes so easy to feel what it was like to live in Old Capital long before modern times changed so much. Indeed, nostalgia is a driving force in the tourism industry. Everyone longs for the past . . .
New challenges for a new generation
Komaruya continues to innovate and challenge the boundaries of their craft. Recently, they began collaborating with an established kimono textile merchant to create elaborate silk uchiwa.
In Ms. Sumii words, 'Our business is making uchiwa. However, even more important than that is our role is keeping traditional craft processes alive and relevant. In a way, this is also a way of showing respect to those who came before us. We must pass this traditional knowledge on. At first, my daughter hesitated to take over the family business, but as she came to understand how precious and wonderful our work is, she finally decided to be our 11th generation family head. It gives me great pleasure to know that she will continue the work of the past into the present.
(Aya Okubo: KVG editor/translator)
1 Putting glue on the paper 2 Attaching the paper on the bamboo bones and adjusting 3 Attaching the other side of the paper 4 Attaching the paper to the bone firmly 5 Cutting off the excess parts with a wood knife 6 Finishing the edge of the uchiwa with a thin strip of paper 7 Tracing each bone with a special spatula to make shadows
Located one street south of Nio-mon, east of Jingu-michi; open: 10:00-18:00; closed Sun. & holiday; New Fukakusa Uchiwa fans are from 2,500 yen; they also have other fans and a fine selection of Japanese accessories; Komaruya's uchiwa can also be found in the Miyako Messe and the Kyoto-kan (in Tokyo); Tel: 771-2229; www.komaruya.jp/