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Military leader's fan

Enlarge this image. Military leader's fan. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Bronze. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B62M37.

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 signal fan (gunbai) whose shape suggests the cross-section of a gourd. As objects 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 is it made of?

This signal fan resembles a flat paper fan made for civilian use, but instead of paper it is constructed of bronze and other metals. A tasseled carrying cord is attached at one end.

Military leader's fan (detail). Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Bronze. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B62M37.
How is it decorated? What does this decoration mean?
This bronze fan is decorated at the top with a sun and crescent moon, visible through scudding clouds. 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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