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The folding fan was invented in Japan during the 8th century. Called Hiougi, they were made of thin stripes of hinoki (Japanese cypress) and used by aristocrats of the Heian Period (794-1185) as part of their formal attire. Eventually the Japanese fan was exported to China, where silk fans were used. They were transformed and re-imported as Chinese fans in the 15th century. Over the ages fans played an increasingly important role in Japanese culture.
In the 16th century, an iron fan was developed for use in warfare. Officers used the clearly marked fans as a signalling device to command their troops. By raising or lowering the fan, or pointing it into a certain direction, they were able pass on commands over longer distances than a voice could carry.
During the peaceful and prosperous Edo Period (1603-1868), fans became common as a way to cool off during Japan’s hot summers. They were also used in wedding ceremonies, funerals, tea and aroma ceremonies, story telling (rakugo), as well as dance and theater performances. Wealthy merchants commissioned expensively decorated fans and the number of designs grew dramatically.
By the start of the 20th century, fans had become so common in Japan that some 20 million were made annually. Foreigners loved them and decorated with traditional Japanese images they were an important export product.
Although air-conditioners have taken the role that fans once played, they are still in common use in Japan and there is nothing unusual about seeing men or women waving themselves some cool air while walking in the street or sitting on a crowded train. Nowadays they are most commonly made of bamboo or plastic. Plastic ones that can’t fold are popular as marketing give-aways. Companies print their message on the fan and them hand out on the street, especially at matsuri (religious festivals).
Even the original Hiougi fan is still used. Formally dressed Shinto priests use Hiougi in ceremonies. Hiougi are also used at Japanese Imperial Court ceremonies.