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Sesson Fans: A Cool Breath of Tradition

Elegant illustrations in ink on handmade washi paper characterize the Sesson fans that have been made in the town of Hitachi Ōta for generations. At the helm today is a woman in her nineties, the fourth generation of her family to make the fans, and the last of a long line of craftspeople.

A Breath of Fresh Air

When the hot, muggy weather arrives, it’s time for the little helpers of summer to work their cooling magic: light clothes of cotton and hemp, straw hats, wind chimes, and hand-held fans. Sit outside in the cool of the evening, your summer blinds hung at the windows, and you’re ready for a traditional Japanese summer.

As a child, I used to carry an uchiwa fan in the sash of my yukata whenever I went to the Obon dances or firework displays that traditionally mark the height of summer. The fan not only provided a cool breeze; it was also essential for fending off seasonal insects. Do these traditions survive among young people today? I sometimes wonder.

This summer, I treated myself to a new Sesson uchiwa fan. This traditional type of fan consists of a bamboo handle and frame wrapped in a wide paddle-shaped shell of washi paper painted in ink with traditional designs associated with summer: eggplants, cucumbers, horses, scarecrows . . . The fan is light and remarkably effective at creating a cooling breeze. Many of the pictures are copies of paintings by Sesson, a sixteenth-century monk and artist who lived in Hitachi Ōta. The fans are individually made by hand in the same town in Ibaraki Prefecture to this day.

Sesson fans. Copies of paintings by the monk artist Sesson and images made by previous generations of craftsmen are printed onto the paper fans.

Keeping a Tradition Alive

At first glance, the old wooden house I have come to visit seems to be half-buried under the flourishing vegetation of the overgrown garden. Outside the house, drying in the sun, are rows of bamboo frames that will later be turned into fans.

“We give them a good drying out in the sun,” says Akutsu Fusako. “That helps prevent mold. And the finished fans weigh almost nothing!” Akutsu has spent her life in the family business, making Sesson uchiwa fans. Now 95, she is the last of a long line of traditional craftspeople.

Akutsu Fusako has more than 80 years’ experience making these fans. She takes care of every stage of the process herself, by hand. Here she applies a painting of morning glories to a bamboo frame.

The fans are made from bamboo cut from a nearby grove. The freshly harvested bamboo is then chopped and shaped into the fan-shaped skeleton frame. The frames are left to dry in the sun for eight months, before the washi paper is added.

“I used to go into the mountains with my son to cut the bamboo until I was 90. Partly to teach him the right kind of bamboos to cut.” By now, Akutsu apparently trusts her son to recognize the fine-quality fresh bamboo she needs for her work. Everything else she does herself by hand—from cutting the bamboo and attaching the washi paper, to the final finishing touches.

Making the bamboo frame. First, Akutsu cuts a 37-centimeter piece of bamboo into nine chunks with a hatchet. After shearing off some of the thickness, she cuts 40 thin notches into the bamboo, then stretches these out into a fan shape with her hands.

“It was my great-grandfather who started making fans; I’m the fourth generation. This house and all the implements I use for my work date from the Meiji era (1868–1912).” The house was built in 1880 and, having survived two major earthquakes, is now a little crooked. The atmosphere is redolent of years gone by, whisking you away to an older world. It feels strangely like coming home. There is no air-conditioning, but breezes run through the house, keeping it cool even in summer. The wooden tools used to make the fans are buffed to a sheen with long years of use.

Once she has bound the frame with dampened igusa reeds, the skeleton of the fan is finished. After being left to dry in the sun for eight months, the framework is light and strong.

  • [2018.02.07]
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