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War Fan

War fan

War fan (gunsen), 1800–1850. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Iron, bamboo, paper, colors, and lacquer. Bequest of Frank D. Stout, F1998.40.2.5.

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What is the function of this object? Who might have used it?
In Japan military leaders used various implements, including flags, banners, and fans, to direct the movement of their troops. The object shown here is a folding military fan. As an object used by military leaders, it is an insignia of the owner’s rank.

In addition to its use in directing troops, the military fan could also afford protection from arrows, wind, or rocks, as well as shade the samurai’s eyes from the sun. Fanning was thought to pacify evil spirits, but it was also of practical value, to cool the warrior during hot and humid summer months. Metal fans could also be used in combat, in parrying attacks or as a blunt weapon. Fans were also used in camp as a handheld tray for the presentation of gifts, and for certain ritual gestures.

How were they carried?
When not in use, fans were suspended from a ring, typically attached either at the waist or breastplate.

What are they made of?
The war fan is made of lacquered paper, glued to ten dark-colored bamboo ribs. Two heavy iron guards enclose and protect the fan (in ordinary fans these guards are made of bamboo or lacquered wood). The lower ends of the ribs and guards are joined with a gilded copper-alloy tube rivet, through which a cord could be passed.

How is it decorated? What does this decoration mean?
The folding fan is decorated with the design of a sun in red. Bold and simple, this design would have been visible from some distance. The moon and sun represent the negative (yin) and positive (yang) forces in Taoist cosmology, an important belief system consulted in planning battle strategy in China as well as Japan. Together, the moon and sun indicate the power of the cosmos; on an item such as a war fan they signify the all-encompassing military power of the owner.

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