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Tessen - Iron Fan


A tessen with iron outer ribs and bamboo inner ribs made in the maiohgi-gata style.

In addition to the daisho, Japanese samurai often carried many other specialized and easily concealable weapons. These were used when otherwise unarmed or, in some cases, when it was preferable not to kill or seriously maim an attacker. The various martial arts ryuha (schools) during the Tokugawa Era2 frequently taught a wide range of specialized short arms specifically designed for self-defense and which could be hidden within everyday clothing.

Both samurai and commoners alike considered the folding hand fan or sensu an important accessory. Customarily carried in the hands or tucked in the obi (belt), the folding fan also played a significant role in Japanese etiquette, especially on formal occasions, and was rarely ever out of a samurai's possession.

Perhaps because it was considered such an ordinary item, it was easily employed as a suitable side arm with only minor modifications. These weapons, called tessen, literally meaning "iron fan," were constructed of either an actual folding fan with metal ribs or a non-folding solid bar of either iron or wood and shaped like a folded fan. During the Edo Period, the tessen was often considered a common self-defense weapon for extraordinary situations.

There were many situations in which a samurai would not have access to his sword. For example, if visiting another person's home, especially one belonging to a superior, a warrior was generally required to leave one or both swords with an attendant at the door. To prevent violence, obvious weapons such as swords, daggers, and spears were also strictly prohibited within the small confines of the pleasure districts such as Yoshiwara in Edo. A tessen, though, was acceptable in any situation, thus leaving the samurai always armed with at least one very effective defensive weapon.

Like the folding fan, tessen usually had eight to ten bamboo or metal ribs and could be worn with everyday attire. A solid tessen, forged from iron or carved from hard wood to look like a closed fan, was more durable and less expensive to make. Perhaps for these reasons, the solid tessen were more popular among samurai than the folding style.

There are many recorded duels won using iron fans against naked swords and even deaths caused by blows from a tessen. It was considered unseemly for a bushi to use his sword against a lower-ranking rival. On the other hand, tessen-jutsu was considered sophisticated, especially among the higher-ranking samurai. Thus, many trained in the defensive use of a tessen and carried one at all times.

Tessen Styles
Like Japanese hand fans, tessen were made in three basic shapes or styles. Typically, the tessen were one shaku long, which is about one-half inch more than a foot by modern standards. In general, the three standard tessen shapes included:

gunsen-gata - the style used to control military troops during war
Tessen, which actually folded, were also referred to as menhari-gata. These were made of metal ribs covered with silk or washi, a very strong paper. The paper was often lacquered, reinforced with gold or silver foil, or treated with oil to make it both more decorative and less susceptible to weather damage.


A menhari-gata made in the sensu-gata style.

In some cases, only the outside ribs were metal while the inside ribs were made of the more flexible and lightweight bamboo strips. The latter were less heavy and easier to carry than the former, but were only effective as a self-defense implement when closed. A folding tessen was not only effective as a defensive weapon, but could be used as a regular hand fan if necessary. Tessen was the term used most frequently when referring to the folding style.

A folding tessen was expensive to make and difficult to maintain, though. Frequently tessen were solid iron cast in the shape of a closed fan. This type was generally called tenarashi-gata and was usually quite heavy. Some were made with straight edges and only faintly resembled a hand fan while others were more convincing replicas.


A tenarashi-gata made to appear as a closed fan in the maiohgi-gata style.

Most samurai considered tenarashi-gata much more effective in combat than the folding style. This style of tessen also became quite popular with both the samurai police officers and their non-samurai assistants. Their disarming and arresting techniques often employed a combination of tessen and jutte, the iron truncheon they carried as a badge of office and as a weapon.

Solid style tessen were also carved from hard wood such as sunuke or oak. Called motsu-shaku, the solid wooden fan was fairly easy and inexpensive to make. In comparison to the heavier iron tessen, a motsu-shaku was also lighter and therefore easier to carry. Samurai often used a motsu-shaku for self-protection as well as for practice.

Tessen Decoration
Both the folding and solid style often incorporated engravings of suitable poems, rank titles, animal images, or symbolic kanji characters. Sometimes a fancy silk cord wrapping was used as a handle, almost like a bladed weapon. Of course, many tessen were of a more sober and functional style, including little or no decoration of any kind.

Tessen Practice
Although the practice of tessen-jutsu was considered part of the classical Japanese weapon arts, it was primarily intended for self-defense. Tessen techniques were typically based on reactions for self-protection rather than more aggressive strikes. Most tessen-jutsu techniques are designed to incapacitate or restrain an individual opponent rather than for inflicting permanent injury or death.

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