You Mortal Kombat fans have seen this used by the ninja Kitana, but what you may not know is that this is not a purely fictional device. These specially designed fans were made with iron spikes and were very popular tools among Samurai and many others in Feudal Japan who were able to afford them.
The Tessen was designed to appear as an everyday fan used for cooling off. Instead of wood or paper panels, it was made with thin strips of iron, which were then sharpened. The fan could be folded up to hide its deadly nature and carried around without anyone knowing its true identity. This comes in handy when a Samurai enters an area that swords are forbidden, such as another lord’s home in which he refuses to allow the Samurai inside while armed with his katana. With the Tessen, the Samurai remains armed, despite his host insisting otherwise.
The most common use for the Tessen was signaling troops during a battle or siege. There are several stories of its use as a weapon in Japanese history. Usually the warrior chose this weapon when taken by surprise. I read a story once where a warrior named Uesugi Kenshin burst into General Takeda Shingen’s tent during a battle, somehow he had made his way through his army on horseback. He attacked Takeda with his katana, but Takeda had stopped his strike with a Tessen, because in his tent in the middle of his army, he did not have his katana by his side. He never would have imagined having to defend himself. It saved his life. I didn’t find out what ultimately happened, but I think it’s safe to assume that the General wasn’t killed, and all because he was never truly unarmed. He probably had it on his desk where he sat so he could step out and signal his commanders quickly.
There are plenty of other uses for the Tessen as well. It worked great for swimming faster or being thrown like a giant shuriken. They also made for a great miniature shield in a tight situation and are sturdy enough to withstand the impact of an arrow or shuriken. The Samurai were quite deadly with this tool because they trained at a young age on how to use the Tessen in combat through the art of Tessenjutsu.
A lot of video games have had characters using this weapon, and the next time you play, don’t just think the deadliness of that fan is just video game magic for your entertainment. A Tessen may not be capable of penetrating armor, but an exposed neck and a flick of a wrist is all it would take to end a life.
A popular cartoon that utilized the art of Tessenjutsu was “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The female Kyoshi Warriors specialized in the Tessen and painted themselves up like samurai geisha. Next time you meet a geisha, better keep your eyes on her fan.
I hope you enjoyed this
edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of
weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you next week.