Traditionally, Japanese masks are used in rituals, festivals and theaters. They are linked to tails and folk myth. The masks represent devils (oni), animals (kitsune), people (Hyotoko and Okame), creatures (tengu) and ghosts (hannya).
They are everywhere in Japanese theaters, on TV, in houses, in manga, in ceremonies and rituals and even on Kawaii t-shirts. Every year the Japanese masks show many faces. Worn by actors, Shinto dancers and many people in Japan.
You can also see them in shrines, during festivals (matsuri), in Japanese art. These objects inspired by legends, in Japanese dances, and the famous Noh theater.
We will see in this article what the Japanese mask means. We will discover the origin of this tradition, their secrets and the most common masks :
- Japanese noh theater mask
- Oni demon mask
- Kitsune kami mask
- Hannya demon mask
- Hyotoko legend mask
- Okame legend mask
- Samurai mempo mask
1. TRADITIONAL JAPANESE MASK MEANING
Hannya Demon mask with Katana / Adobe Stock Licence
As objects of art, religion and rituals, masks are common in most cultures of the world. The oldest Japanese remains date back to prehistory. At that time, they were made of clay, except for the famous Ataka mask that is carved out of shells. Endowed with holes you can imagine that the Japanese masks were designed to be put on the face.
According to an old Japanese tradition they were worn by dancers for religious cults, such as the Gigaku mask. Kamen, or "passenger's faces" were imported from Korea to celebrate the art of dance around the 14th century. It is therefore Japanese theater that has perpetuated this ancestral tradition in Japanese culture.
Noh Mask Demon / Adobe Stock Licence
Significant element of the play, the mask comes to life on stage. By wearing it on the face, the actor merges with the character. Thus, Noh theatre has more than 250 different entities (spirits, demons, men, women, old people). The masks have the reputation of varying their expression according to their tendency. As for the masks of kyōgen, they are comical in appearance and absurdly exaggerated.
2. JAPANESE NOH THEATER
Noh Theater in Tokyo / Source unknown
In the 16th century, the influence of the Noh theater gave birth to a mask-making craft of which Sankôbô was the first sculptor. Later on, he created several schools to transmit his knowledge. Traditional Japanese masks are carved on a piece of cypress wood, covered with ceruse, then colored and varnished. The details are painted with Indian ink and one can even find horsehair as hair or other pilosity. Their particularity is their varnished side which creates a play of light and shadow, giving them multiple facets.
Represented by an angry demon, this crimson-faced mask with a frightening look is common in Japanese folklore. The long red nose is a leftover of his bird past, once the tengu demon became human. Half bird, half-man. Tengu means "celestial dog". This demon announcer of war is often represented in the costume of yamabushi (ascetics and warriors of the summits) and symbolizes the spirit of the mountain that is feared by the Japanese. Tengu masks are very popular in Noh theater and for Shinto celebrations. On the other hand, if you are told that you are a Tengu in Japan it means that you are particularly pretentious.
3. ONI MASK
Angry face, sharp teeth, devil horns, he does not look friendly. So you will not be surprised if I tell you that he embodies the bad influences that try to take over the home. The Japanese have a ritual of driving the Oni away when spring comes. Also, during Setsubun they ward off the demons by throwing beans to bring good fortune into the family home.
At New Year's Day in northern Japan there is another ritual where the inhabitants wear Japanese Oni masks to frighten disobedient children. In exchange for offerings and Sake, these bring health and prosperity. So, if you feel like changing out of the Santa Claus costume and scaring your children, I recommend this one.
4. KITSUNE MASK
This fox from Japanese tales covers the faces of festival-goers during Shinto ceremonies. This animal would have the power to metamorphose into an attractive young woman.
Isn't it classy? But that's not all, this magical fox is also the messenger of Inari, goddess of rice, trade and prosperity. If you want to see Kitsune you can visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Be aware, he might play tricks on you if you're a little bit too proud.
Japanese traditional culture tends to consider the kitsune fox as kami (Japanese gods) !
5. HANNYA MASK
Hannya drawing by Jiaxian Jan.
This demon mask is one of the most popular in Japan, very often represented in the theater or in movies. Hannya is a ghostly woman who has come back from the dead to take revenge. Her anger and jealousy are terrible, so I advise you not to look for her too much. She is also an Oni demon.
Hannya's ancient Japanese masks represent an angry face with two pointed horns, big sad and hateful eyes, a demonic smile with sharp canines and ruffled black hair. It comes in several colors with different meanings: red represents crime of passion and jealousy, green represents anger and rage. His tilted downwards expression is all the more saddening. You can find Hannya's mysterious face on many tattoos.
6. HYOTTOKO MASK
Japanese Hyottoko during Matsuri (festival) from Hyuga / Source Omatsuri
Who has never dreamed of producing gold with his navel? It is the power of Hyottoko, a legendary young man in Japan. His funny face is represented in a very original way with a rounded mouth that is supposed to blow through a bamboo straw to light fire. He is also the God of Fire! He brings luck to the families of the dead. Hyottoko masks are commonly used during traditional Japanese dances to bring good luck.
7. OKAME MASK
Japanese Okame mask / Source Greenshinto
A real good luck charm, this smiling mask with childish features brings luck and long life. It is the female version of Hyottoko, with whom he appears very often in duet. She is also named Otafuku, which means fortune. You will find her mostly in small towns.
8. SAMURAI MASK
Japanese Samurai Oni Mask for cosplay or japan fan (traditional samurai armor cosplay)
In traditional Japanese culture, Samurai used armor to protect their faces during the feudal edo period. Did you know that these protections represented demons to frighten their opponents? The result is a real mask crafting for samurai.
Forged in iron or leather, this martial mask was often varnished and decorated with details that reminded of the famous yōkai (Japanese demon), or Japanese divinity. Imagine yourself in front of an army of samurai with evil faces.
And what has become of the Japanese masks today?
Genji Oni overwatch
Since the dawn of time, traditional Japanese masks have fascinated people. Symbols of Japanese culture appear everywhere in modern society. For example, in the animated film "The Journey of Chihiro" by Hayao Miyazaki, you can see a nô mask among the characters, the famous No Face. These art objects are sources of inspiration for many creative fields, such as the video game "The Legend of Zelda" or tattoos. For the Japanese, the masks are used to highlight the spectacular and the parade during festive events and religious celebrations.
Japanese pop culture mask
There, you know all about the famous Japanese masks. If you also want to transform yourself into a samurai or if you are looking for a decorative art object to decorate your interior, do not hesitate to visit our complete collection with a wide choice of masks !