Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Japanese War Fan

I am not talking about a Japanese person who is a fan of war. I am talking about the classic Japanese Fan that is designed for war. You may be wondering "that simple folding, delicate Japanese fan?" Yes.

During the feudal times of Japan, a lethal version of the Japanese folding fan, a tessen, was carried by the samurai in armor. Rather then made with wood ribs and frame, these folding fans were made with iron and usually had eight to ten ribs and were a handy weapon of attack or defense. Under the direction of many clans, in fact, schools were established where various styles of combat using the tessen were devised, tested and continually improved similar to the study and training of swordsmanship.

Delicate folding fan made of wood

Experts in the use of the tessen were able to parry the blows of spear thrusts using their iron fan according to many Japanese sagas. Also famous for their use of the iron fan were the swordsman who were instructors to the Tokugawa Shoguns. In the literature of the martial arts of that time, there are many instances of victories won with a war fan against a sword, and many examples of men killed by a blow from it. Tessen were also popular with many non-samurai who were forbidden to carry a sword.

Tessen with iron ribs.

Folded tessen

The adaptability of these fans is underscored by the famous story involving Araki Murashige, an important figure of the late Warring States period. Summoned to appear before Oda Nobunaga, the first of the three great unifiers of Japan, Murashige knew that his life hung in the balance and that only his tessen stood between him and a most unpleasant demise (all swords being confiscated before entrance to every private mansion). It was known that a method of Nobunaga's retainers for disposing of enemies was to snap their neck between the heavy wooden door panels that separated the antechamber from the reception hall when the visitor performed the ritual bow greeting across the threshold.

When he bowed, however, Murashige instinctively placed his tessen in the groove which the door panels slid, and there was a loud bang as the doors suddenly bounced against the steel rods of the fan, but no blood flowed. It is said that Murashige acted as if nothing had happened, and that his composure was immediately acknowledged by the hasty-tempered Nobunaga with reconciliation and further favors.

Although this legend may or may not be true, it does demonstrate the respect that the war fan had among the feudal samurai of Japan.

Secrets of the Samurai


  1. Interesting item. This explains why there are fans used as fighting weapons in modern Japanese computer games.

  2. Yes, they are using the tessen. They are a particularly brutal weapon when used to smash an attackers face or break his wrists.

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  4. I enjoy stopping by and reading this blog. It's always interesting to see what you have to say.

    However, I do feel the need to advise you that Secrets of the Samurai is not considered a trustworthy source by many who know a thing or two about samurai history. I'd be very wary of using this as background material for any further blog posts. It's based on dodgy sources and is rather sensational. If you don't take my word for it, feel free to ask noted historian and author Tony Bryant for his additional feedback. You can reach him by sending him a private message on the Samurai Archives Citadel forum if you want. I'm sure Tony will have some colorful comments about that book.

    Also, I have more than a few other books about samurai weapons, both in English and Japanese, but tessen don't make much of an appearance, of any at all. Why?

  5. Thank you. I already was aware of this regarding this book. I have read enough other books on Japanese history in order to compare. I would not say that the book is entirely suspect based on my other readings as well as web searches. Plus, the book does have a fairly extensive bibliography.

    There are many other sources on the web of tessen so I am not too worried about the background of the tessen. Anyways, I know that it was not a primary weapon which I did not say that it was.

    Thank you though.

  6. Also, I did skip several sections of the book as they did not interest me. I also would probably not recommend it but it was interesting enough that I read a good portion of it.

    I do like author Stephen Turnbull when it comes to samurai history.

  7. It is funny because I have seen fans in video games but none of them ever looked like they were metal...

    Does the fan have some sort of symbolic meaning in Japan? I understand a weapon fan can be used as a stealth weapon. But it just seems weird to think to turn a fan into a weapon..

  8. Turnbull is ummm...well...okay...I guess...(sorry- just got an instant case of heartburn)for some stuff. I have some issues with his lack or source lists, spotty research and a habit of making his text look a lot like what he has used before, or even worse, what other authors have written in older books. He has goten better over the years, though and for all of his faults, I do credit him for making samurai history accessible to the English-speaking world. I still do buy most of what he publishes, although I often vow not to!

    Above and beyond Turnbull, check out Karl Friday--he's got a great book on samurai warfare and I highly recommend Thomas Conlan's Weapons and Fighting Techniques of the Samurai. Even Conlan had a few errors (a reference to wooden armor is one of them- and he is aware of the mistake and will have that corrected in a future edition), but I feel Conlan's probably got the best "general" book on the subject out there in English. I should also add that Tony Bryant's Osprey books are very good and very technical as well-- especially if you are an "armor head". :-)

  9. Thank you. I will put these on my reading list. Are their book recommendations listed on the Samurai Archive website?

  10. Prometheus, there were regular paper fans also used by the warriors as symbols. I believe that one of the uses was to indicate their clan symbol or sign.

  11. hello again,

    I thought your post was really cool... whether its the truth or not.... Samurai lore is always entertaining.... And it does:t really matter if the story is true... the point is the samurai was bold, prepared, and stoic in the face of death... all important qualities.

    To Promethus' comment. I'm not sure about the nature of the fan as a symbol of Japan, however I think it certainly has symbolism in their society... (I just don't know the specifics.)

    Also the Japanese have a long history of using improvised weapons. Farmers were notorious for using tools as weapons. Also, after the Samurai conquest of Okinawa they banned possession of all weapons. The Okinawaa people were notorious for their improvised weapons. (Yes, yes I know Okinawa isn't considered 'Japan' in the true sense... Just using it as an example.)

    See ya round

    -Oh, by the way Tornadoes.... Didn't get around to eating any Italian food in Osaka.... hehehe

    But I can tell you that ほるもん and ちょう are delicious! 木も however leaves a little to be desired...

  12. Yes, I have read about the farmer use of improvised weapons also. More about the tessen can be read on Wikipedia.

  13. True or not, the Araki Murashige anecdote is compelling. Good to know that you can survive when the door hits the fan ...

  14. Is that kind of like when the Sh#t hits the fan?