The Long and Fascinating History of Traditional Japanese Fan Dancing

History of Traditional Japanese Fan Dancing
Japan, 'The Land of the Rising Sun' is an East Asian island nation. This country set in the Pacific Ocean, has enriched the whole world with its people, who display extraordinary resilience, a culture that is steeped in human history and traditions such as the fan dance that are synonymous with universal festivity and celebrations.
Flanked by the East Sea, Korea, People's Republic of China and Russia, Japan richly deserves the original meaning of its name, 'sun-origin'. The Japanese way of life is synonymous with Mount Fuji, the neon of Tokyo and the traditional Japanese fan dance. This island nation has enjoyed an enriching influx of western culture, but not without a firm grounding of traditions that are essentially 'Japanese'. Today, this Asian giant is a major economic power, a developed country with people who enjoy a very high standard of living and the longest life-expectancy worldwide!

Traditional Japanese Fan Dancing History

Japanese hand-held fans were originally designed as implements used to induce an airflow. The main purpose of these fans was to cool and refresh the aristocrats. The earlier versions, like most of those exclusively exhibited today, were hand crafted. The rudimentary fan first made a 'cool' appearance during the Jimmu and Akihito eras. Way back then, the fans were designed with paper or feathers and the thin material was mounted on slats. Today, the only difference is the preference for paper that is elaborately painted and folded. The basic design continues to be the paper-pivot attachment, a mechanism that allows the artist to fold and open the fan at the slightest maneuver of the wrist. The Japanese fans symbolize friendship and respect. They are exchanged even today, on special occasions, as ambassadors of good will.

The Japanese fan dance was choreographed for private performances and to highlight the ornate work on the fan. The fan was originally intended to extend good wishes and cheer. The earliest performances of the Japanese fan dance were recorded during the reign of Emperor Jimmu. The tradition continued through the subsequent imperial lineages, through the Meiji and House of Fujiwara celebrations. The prop was not only easy to dance with, but also added to the color of the Japanese Kimono, elaborate hair styles and bold make-up. Traditionally, the steps choreographed were slow, deliberate and very suggestive, to the music that was most of the time a live accompaniment. Today however, there are variations that are choreographed to appeal to western audiences, set to recorded music. Originally, Japanese fan dancing was a symbol of social status. The fans were hand-painted and mostly displayed by aristocrats, on formal occasions. The use of hinoki, Japanese cypress, was in accordance to a person's rank. The fans and fan dancing were an inseparable part of the Japanese courts, during coronation and marriage celebrations. Japanese craftsmen designed the fans with ivory, mother of pearl and sandalwood, depending on social significance, to suit the specifications of the choreography and the importance of the occasion.

Japanese Culture

Japanese culture, as it is exhibited and understood today, is an evolved form of influences that made an impact on the original Jōmon culture. Contemporary culture highlights influences from across Asia and Europe. Traditional arts and crafts like ikebana, origami, fan dancing, ukiyo-e, lacquerware and pottery have become synonymous with the deep roots of the East Asian archipelago. Japanese bunraku, dance performances, kabuki and the tea ceremony are an integral part of world heritage and culture. Eclectic Japanese music is a perfect example of how instruments and scales from neighboring cultures can generate a unique form when absorbed in the right spirit. Japanese literature like Kojiki, Nihon Shoki and Man'yōshū, cater to readers and preferred styles across the globe. By far, of all the components of Japanese culture, the hand-held fan is the most profound.

Today, Japanese fans are symbolic of friendship or loyalty, and are no longer considered to represent social significance. Traditional Japanese fans are even exchanged as signs of good will. The fan symbolizes good wishes, respect and friendship. An ancient Japanese belief is that the handle of the fan denotes the beginning of life and ribs signify the roads of life going out in all directions. Fan dancing forms a key part of representations of Japan in Western popular culture and is depicted in many forms of culture like films and books.
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