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Unfolding Beauty
Nagoya sensu Maker Shigekazu Aoki


Sensu, or folding fans, can be spread open to produce a cool breeze and quickly closed back up into the shape of a rod. "Well-made fans emit a sharp snapping sound when closed," contends Shigekazu Aoki, the 63-year-old proprietor of Kosendo, a fan-making workshop in Nagoya's Nishi Ward. He is a finish artisan who continues to apply the traditional fan-making techniques passed down through the generations.

The sensu is a Japanese creation that originated around the beginning of the ninth century. The fans are said to have been introduced into China sometime in the twelfth or thirteenth century by visiting Japanese Zen priests. Today, the cities of Nagoya and Kyoto are the two main sensu production centers.

The main types of Nagoya sensu produced are otoko-mono for men (photo) and those used at commemorative events like weddings. The production of these fans is the result of a highly specialized division of labor involving many artisans.
The art of making the mass-produced sensu characteristic to Nagoya was brought to the city by Inoue Kanzo and his son from Kyoto in the mid-eighteenth century and further developed by local bamboo basket makers. Even today, the fans continue to be made the traditional way by artisans in Nishi Ward-the heart of Nagoya sensu production.

According to Sadao Kawase, 61, director of the Nagoya sensu Manufacturers' Union, the city's 17 companies produce some 4 million fans annually. These are put together by nearly 200 artisans, including subcontractors. "The making of sensu requires dedication; you have to commit yourself to just one aspect of the process. Each aspect-from fashioning and assembling the ribs and the layering of the washi paper to create the fan's basic shape to the painting, folding, and finishing-is performed by artisans whose families have been specializing in that particular process for generations," explains Kawase.

Aoki's role is the final link in the production chain: to complete the sensu by inserting thinly cut bamboo ribs between sheets of fan-shaped paper, folded into fixed widths, and centering the ribs around a pivot. Thirty-three ribs must be inserted between the two sheets of paper that have been glued together. The result of this process-which takes only about 40 seconds-is a finished fan.

"It's extremely quick, but it's also very important since it's at this stage that imperfections must be corrected. If the fan becomes deformed at this point, it can't be restored. I take special care to make certain that there is no gap between the outermost ribs and the paper when the fan is folded," explains Aoki. "Making sensu is a collaborative effort, and if any stage is done carelessly, the finishing will not proceed smoothly. You could say that the life of the sensu is in the beauty of its folded state."

The Nagoya sensu, which goes through many different stages-there are even those just to create tiny holes between sheets of paper where the ribs are inserted and making sure the paper is folded correctly-is the product of the collective efforts of many skilled artisans. Whether or not these efforts crystallize into a single, beautiful folding fan rests on the shoulders of finish artisans like Aoki.

(Photos by Masatsugu Yokoyama, Text by Tomohiro Takahashi)