Kagawa Prefecture rose to fame for its “Sanuki udon,” and is also known as the smallest prefecture in Japan, but there is another product made here that accounts for 90% of domestic production volume. There is always at least one present at the home or work place, and it’s something everyone has used at some point to start a charcoal fire at a barbeque or to keep cool. It is the “Uchiwa” fan. They are produced in Marugame city of Kagawa Prefecture, and it is said that approximately 90 million fans are shipped annually.
The Uchiwa Business that Supported Marugame
Uchiwas have a long history, first mentioned in ancient text as a referee’s fan during the era of Prince Shotoku, as well as in legend as an item brought back from Tang by Jianzhen.
Uchiwas were first produced in Marugame City during the Edo period.
In 1633, the chief priest of the Konko-in Temple of Kotohira-gu Shrine suggested the uchiwa, which was a novelty at the time, as a souvenir for the Konpira Pilgrimage to the Ikoma clan, who had been governing Marugame at the time. The lord then invited artisans from Nara Prefecture, known as the uchiwa’s place of production, and began to create uchiwa with a bamboo frame and encircled symbol for “gold.” This is said to be the origin of uchiwa production.
Financial circumstances were tight when the Kyogoku clan took over, and uchiwa making was promoted as an industrial development to establish a financial base. During the Ansei era, it is said that 800,000 uchiwas were manufactured annually. In the Meiji Era, the first corporate organization in the uchiwa industry was established, transitioning the business from a home industry to mass production. In the Taisho era, the invention of machines to cut and pierce bamboo dramatically increased production, bringing recognition to the region as the top uchiwa production site in Japan. After the World War II, a machine to manufacture plastic uchiwa frames was invented, transitioning the product from bamboo to plastic. As more households began to use electric fans and air conditioning systems, uchiwas evolved from a household item to an item used for a variety of things such as promotional items for businesses and props used to cheer on popular idols.
The Traditional Marugame Uchiwa
Spreading Tradition with the “Winds” of the Times
Business performance worsened after the bubble economy period, and as uchiwa uses for marketing and promotion decreased, unit price was negatively impacted. The uchiwa industry had entered a period of winter. However, due to the nuclear accident caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake, Tokyo implemented planned power outages in response to the power shortage caused by the shutdown of nuclear reactors. At the same time, awareness of energy-saving measures
heightened. Uchiwa were brought into focus at that time, and production could not keep up with the number of orders that were coming in. The uchiwa industry in the region was revitalized.
However, the uchiwa manufacturing industry does not see this as a long lasting trend. In reality, the orders for uchiwa in 2013 did not surpass the previous year’s. This may be the result of the energy-saving mindset and the novelty of uchiwa gradually wearing off over time.
For some time, the region has been putting efforts into boosting demand by providing various products including completely paper uchiwa, product that uses biodegradable plastic frames, and other environmentally conscious products.