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A number of war fans were used in Japanese feudal warfare, of varying size and material, for different purposes. One of the most significant, and perhaps most interesting, uses was as a signalling device. Signalling fans came in three varieties: a tasseled pom-pon, a solid iron fan, or a wood and paper one, very similar to the gunbai used today by sumo referees. The commander would raise or lower his fan and point in different ways to issue commands to the soldiers, which would then be passed on by other forms of visible and audible signalling. The art of fighting with war fans is tessenjutsu.
One particularly famous legend involving war fans concerns a direct confrontation between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561. Kenshin burst into Shingen’s command tent on horseback, having broken through his entire army, and attacked; his sword was deflected by Shingen’s war fan. It is not clear whether Shingen parried with a tessen, a dansen uchiwa, or some other form of fan. Nevertheless, it was quite rare for commanders to fight directly, and especially for a general to defend himself so effectively when taken so off-guard.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune is said to have defeated the great warrior monk Benkei with a tessen.
Araki Murashige is said to have used a tessen to save his life when the great warlord Oda Nobunaga sought to assassinate him. Araki was invited before Nobunaga, and was stripped of his swords at the entrance to the mansion, as was customary. When he performed the customary bowing at the threshold, Nobunaga intended to have the room’s sliding doors slammed shut onto Araki’s neck, killing him. However, Araki supposedly placed his tessen in the grooves in the floor, blocking the doors from closing.
The Yagyu clan, sword instructors to the Tokugawa shoguns, included tessenjutsu in their swordschool, the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu.
Many fictional characters use war fans as weapons in battle: Yumi Ishiyama in the French animated series Code Lyoko uses war fans as her weapons, as do Mai Shiranui of Fatal Fury, King of Fighters, Anji Mito of Guilty Gear X, Kitana of Mortal Kombat, and Temari from Naruto fights with a giant fan with three purple circles. Kagura from the anime InuYasha wields a fan to use her powers. Tasuki from Fushigi Yugi is also known for wielding a flaming tessen. The Kyoshi Island Warriors from Avatar: The Last Airbender use metal fans as their primary weapon and even utilize retractable fans as wrist shields. Yori from the cartoon show Kim Possible wields a pair of Tessen in the third season episode “Gorilla Fist.” Hakuoro, the masked protagonist of Utawarerumono, fights with a metal fan in all his battles. In Super Mario RPG, one of Princess Toadstool’s weapons is a War Fan. In the game Soulcalibur III, certain classes in Character Creation Mode can equip war fans. In recognition of the aforementioned conflict at Kawanakajima, Takeda Shingen wields a dansen uchiwa in Samurai Warriors and Samurai Warriors 2 the character Ishida Mitsunari also from the same game wields a tessen. Several playable characters in the Dynasty Warriors video game franchise wield war fans in battle. War fans have also been named as shukusen in some popular culture. An example of this is in Tamora Pierce’s Quartet: Protector of the Small. In this set of books, Yamani women wield deadly metal fans which they use for decoration, complex fan dances and self-defense. It is interesting to note that Yamani culture is partly based on historical Japanese culture. In the film The Last Samurai one of the samurai is briefly seen practicing with a war fan before the final battle of the movie. Retsu Fukami/GekiBlue of Juken Sentai Gekiranger uses a special war fan after learning Fierce Beast (GekiJu) Bat-Fist from Fist Sage Bat Li.
The harisen (??? meaning “stretched fan” in Japanese) is a giant paper fan. Usually made in a closed fashion, it is used in Japanese comedy shows as a form of physical comedy. This is what is usually seen in anime when a character smacks another on the head with a paper fan. The character Dr. Eto in the anime series Nodame Cantabile is known by the nickname “Harisen” because he uses one to punish his students.
In Negima!, Asuna Kagurazaka wields a giant sword-sized harisen that later transforms into an enormous single-edged sword.
Kaname Chidori of the anime Full Metal Panic uses a harisen that she seems to put out from Hammerspace to stop Sousuke from doing anything that could injure or kill a civilian in Tokyo.
The psychopathic character Kazuo Kiriyama is given a harisen in the movie Battle Royale.
In the video game series Super Smash Bros., a large fan is a usable item. Characters will wield it as a very fast weapon. It is available in all three incarnations.
In the series Saiyuki a character named Genjyo Sanzo also uses a harisen to punish both Son Goku and Sha Gojyo when the two argue against each for even the smallest of things.