Throughout Japan's history, both the Japanese folding fan and the Japanese hand fan have played significant roles in society and ceremonial traditions. The importance of the Japanese fan far exceeded its ability to keep people cool. It was used in an extensive range of social and court activities. The Japanese fan was also used in the military, as a way of sending signals on the field of battle. In the arts, Japanese hand fans were vital to the success of dance, the theatre and even in sumo wrestling, where the referee controls the contestants using a type of Japanese folding fan called "gumpai uchiwa", which means "military fan". Kabuki actors used Japanese hand fans in mass as well. Such artists as Kunisada created special Japanese fans for the followers of kabuki.
The rise of ukiyo-e woodblock printing in the Edo period sparked the development of a broad range of fan shapes and sizes. During this time, some women used the fixed Japanese hand fan called "uchiwa" while other women preferred the more traditional folding hand fans we see today called "ogi" fans. Both Japanese fans were in style and have been used by women since the Edo period. In the 1860s, Japanese fans gained popularity in Europe and were exported there in great quantities. European artists started to experiment on these Japanese fans, painting various and numerous types of scenes. During this time, it became popular to mount Japanese hand fans on a wall. These were probably the first Japanese wall fans used in Europe. These casual displays of the Japanese folding fan were extremely popular in fashion among every social level. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Japanese folding fan became a symbol of the arts -- sophisticated, flirtatious, universally accepted and inexpensive.
In just 15 years, the Japanese fan had made a big splash in Europe and subsequently America. Curio shops selling Japanese art work abounded throughout both continents. The glamour and allure of the Japanese fan, and Japanese art in particular, had made an impression on the Western world that changed the landscape of art and culture in the west. In France, during the last quarter of the 19th century, Japanese hand fans had gained as much popularity as in England. French artists employed Japanese folding fans in their paintings and studios as a stimulating visual effect. Edouard Manet, the famous French impressionistic artist, once painted his wife clad in a kabuki robe holding a Japanese hand fan in her right hand while a dozen Japanese wall fans decorate the wall behind her. This painting was made in 1876 and is called "The Lady with the Fans".
Japanese wall fans can easily add life to any room and can be arranged symmetrically or casually on a wall, attached to a shoji screen or even to ceilings. When not used for adornment, Japanese folding fans were being used to cool their bearers on hot days. The great and witty English writer Oscar Wilde once wrote, "in the hot summers that have become the fashion, [we] fan ourselves, without regard to sex or condition, with Japanese fans". Today, we are seeing a renewed interest in Japanese fans. People are using Japanese wall fans for decorations in their home and Japanese hand fans for use as a cooling prop. Celebrities such as Madonna and Paris Hilton have been seen fanning themselves on hot days with Japanese folding fans. More and more people the world over are beginning to appreciate and use Japanese art and the many unveiled treasures from the land of the rising sun.