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Saturday, Aug. 21, 1999

Arts and Artisans

Fanning the flame for sensu

Staff writer

When you open up a sensu (folding fan), or ogi as they are also known, a unique little world opens up in front of you.

Sensu, which have come to be one of the traditional items most often associated with Japanese culture, come in a variety of different motifs and colors printed on washi.

Sensu are not just to cool one down on a hot summer day; they are also a pleasure to look at. Many of the decorative patterns on the fans are taken from nature and include pictures such as cherry orchards, pine trees or butterflies. It's also quite common to find depictions of scenes and characters from different periods in Japanese history; for example, a Heian Period woman.

The first fans, known as uchiwa (summer fans), are believed to have been introduced to Japan from China during the Nara Period (710-794). Sensu, folding fans made from Japanese cypress, emerged early in the Heian Period (794-1185). Subsequently sensu came to be covered with paper, and pictures were soon added.

Unlike uchiwa, sensu were introduced from Japan to China, and together with swords became one of Japan's main exports early in the 15th century. In the Meiji Era, denguri (sensu that open to 360 degrees) were exported to Europe, particularly England, and were used as ornaments to be placed in the fireplace during the summer.

At Inoue Sensu-ten in Adachi-ku, which opened in the Edo Period, there is a sensu for every occasion: natsu-ogi for the summer, shugi-ogi for special ceremonies, mai-ogi for Japanese traditional dancing, the ornamental kazari-ogi and the miniature mame-ogi. They also make chukei which are used in noh theater and cha-ogi for tea ceremony.

Fukujiro Inoue, 86, the owner of this small studio/shop, has been making fans for over 70 years and has continued to do so even since he lost his voice due to an operation for throat cancer.

"I admire my father for being so persistent [with his job]," says Inoue's son, Masayuki. The youngest of Inoue's six children, he began studying fan-making from his father in his early 20s.

Masayuki also consults with Japanese traditional dance teachers who order sensu to give out along with tenugui to the guests at their apprentices' debut-dance ceremony. It is particularly difficult work, says Masayuki, because it also includes going out for drinks with the teachers on a regular basis.

The Inoues have also made sensu for kabuki actors such as Tokizo Nakamura and Kikugoro Onoe and rakugo comedians such as Kobuhei Hayashiya, as well as for visitors to Japan -- these have included such famous faces as Harrison Ford and then Prime Minister Gorbachev. Recently, they made one for the Empress, for her father's funeral. They also easily handled the Herculean task of making 30,000 sensu to commemorate the opening of the first Takashimaya branch in Tokyo.

Sensu originated in Kyoto, but are now made in both Kansai and in Kanto. The Kansai sensu, says Masayuki, are different from the Kanto ones in that their patterns and colors are much brighter than the ones from Tokyo. Also, in Kyoto, all the procedures are done by different people in order to mass-produce efficiently, whereas in Tokyo, one artisan does most of the steps from start to finish.

"We want to take responsibility for what we make, so we believe that doing most of the process at our shop is the best way," says Masayuki.

The procedure of making sensu is separated into about four stages which include painting, folding the five-layered paper, inserting the bamboo ribs (normally madake bamboo is used) into the paper (naka-zuke) and lastly, putting the main rib onto the body. At Inoue Sensu-ten, they carry out every step except for the painting.

The elder Inoue, who is obliged to write down his thoughts on a board due to the loss of his voice, could not explain as much as he wanted to. Instead, he deftly demonstrated the folding of five layers of paper into the sensu shape, and putting bamboo ribs in the paper.

"Both the bamboo and the paper are alive, so they change according to the weather, especially the humidity," says Inoue. "The artisan has to always think of adjusting the paper and the ribs accordingly. When that works out well, we can make a good sensu.

"We're very proud that the customers say our sensu open up really well and beautifully."

Inoue Sensu-ten is located at 3-26-13 Umejima, Adachi-ku, Tokyo; e-mail: sensu@jin.ne.jp

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