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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

September 29, 2016

A Gentle Japanese Breeze: A Folding Fan

Michelle Yamamoto / Journalist, Reporter

Michelle Yamamoto often appears in English news broadcasts on NHK WORLD. She is a reporter for the Science View TV program and a contributor to the radio programs Easy Japanese and Friends Around the World.

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There is one item that I cannot do without during the hot summer season in Japan: a "folding fan." It's light, compact, and you can control the amount of airflow with just the wave of your hands.

As the summer season ends, I usually clean and put away my collection of fans. This has long been my custom. I have always loved using a folding fan, but since I have learned its history I like it even more!

Let me share some of what I know.

From ancient times, people around the world have used hand fans. A fan that can be folded was said to have been first created in Japan during the Heian period (794-1185) and eventually taken to Europe by Portuguese merchants in the 16th Century. It is surely one of the first Japanese items that became popular in the world!

It is said that in the 17th century, more than 100 shops were selling folding fans in Paris. The fan had become a popular fashion item among upper-class European women.
It then evolved as a communication tool to express feelings of love, using what was called "fan language." Motions conveyed secret messages. For example, touching the tip of the fan with the finger would mean "I wish to speak to you." Covering the left ear with the open fan would mean, "Do not betray our secret."

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Fans in Japan carried secret messages too. From the 8th century, male aristocrats would write poems or love letters on the fan and sent them to women. They would place flowers on an open fan for delivery to the object of their affections. A fan was a very romantic messaging tool!

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Even in modern day Japan, folding fans are used in many different occasions. They are carried at weddings and funerals when wearing kimono. One is not considered fully dressed without a fan.

At a tea ceremony, a guest places a small folding fan between the tea master and oneself, indicating the "結界 kekkai" (boundary) to show respect and modesty.
Fans also play an essential role in traditional performing arts such as Japanese dance, Noh and Kyogen theaters, and Rakugo comedy. They have one thing in common: serving as a representation of something else. A fan can symbolize a sword, a boundary, a butterfly, a chopstick, and many other things.

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A folding fan is considered lucky because of its shape. The widening on one end when the fan is open signifies hopes for future prosperity and success. It also serves as a talisman to protect the owner from evil.

What more could be asked of a simple folding fan?

If you are visiting Japan, consider taking one home as a souvenir. It will fan lots of conversation!

Photographs by Michelle Yamamoto / Courtesy of IBASEN Co.,Ltd

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Profile iconProfile

Michelle Yamamoto / Journalist, Anchor, Reporter, MC, Lecturer, Translator

Born in California, Michelle was raised in Scotland, Japan, France, Germany, and Hong Kong. She is fluent in French and German as well as English and Japanese. As former NHK Journalist, she has covered many world events, including international climate change conferences. Michelle often appears in English-language news broadcasts, cultural programs, and music shows on NHK WORLD TV, and on NHK WORLD Radio Japan programs such as Science View, English News, Easy Japanese, and Friends Around the World.
She is also a popular lecturer at universities on public speaking and global communications.
Michelle has a strong interest in traditional Japanese crafts and often interviews artisans for a column about nearly forgotten Japanese traditions.

Question How long have you been with NHK?
It's been more than 10 years now. After I graduated university, I joined NHK as a journalist covering news in Japanese. I then moved on with my career and turned into an English news anchor and reporter for NHK WORLD TV and NHK WORLD Radio Japan.
Question What was your original reason for coming to Japan?
I was meaning to study in Japan just for university to learn the Japanese culture so that I would have a better understanding of my heritage. I never imagined myself in being so enchanted by the country that I'd be living here as long as I am now.
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
There are so many beautiful and scenic places around Japan that I could introduce, but my recent favorite a festival held in November in Taketa City in Oita Prefecture in the south of Japan. The Taketa Bamboo Lantern Festival, known as "Chikuraku" is a festival where 20,000 bamboo lanterns are lit and placed throughout the pathways and various shrines and temples for three nights. The sight is truly breathtaking.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
My ability of "getting lost in Japan". I get lost very often. But this ability had taken me to the most amazing places and had gotten me to meet the most amazing people in which I would later go and do interviews with.
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
「山笑う」 "Yama-warau" it literary means "mountain smiling (laughing)".
It is a word used in Japanese Haiku Poems to depict the arrival of spring. It illustrates how the trees begins to bud and bloom in the mountains in spring.

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