During the Feodal Japan era, Japanese relied heavily on the universe of Yokai to explain multiple aspects of their daily lives. That is the main reason why these monsters, spirits and ghosts became so popular in various arts such as literature, theater or music. However none was as feared as the Hannya, the Japanese female monster.
The Hannya (般若の面, Sino-Japanese word meaning “wisdom” or “intelligence”) is a the Yokai spirit of a woman who was so consumed by jealousy after being betrayed or spurned by her lover that she turned into a female demon that Japanese call Kijo (鬼女, lit. demon woman). In Japanese folklore, Hannya are a type of female Oni in most cases depicted with a body of a beautiful woman and a face of a demon with scary eyes, horns and fangs.
The presence of Hannya in Japanese culture is very abundant. Indeed, the female Oni is everywhere in the Japanese landscape and it is therefore normal that many fans of the Land of the Rising Sun want to know more about this subject. We find them notably in the Noh theater where the Hannya Mask is used in numerous plays, but also in other forms of art like literature and Japanese tattoos (irezumi).
Let’s discover together a bit more about these famous Hannya Demon:
What does Hannya mean?
Definition and Etymology:
The word Hannya (般若の面) comes from the Buddhist term Prajñā that means litterally “wisdom”, “intelligence”, or “understanding”.
The origin of the term Hannya is uncertain. Some say that it was named after the artist monk Hannya-bō (般若坊), a mask carver that lived in the 15th or early 16th century who was a specialist of this type of masks.
As seen previously, Hannya are Yokai and a type Japanese female demon that appear in Japanese legends, folktales, fairy tales, and performing arts. Hannya are considered as the female version of the Oni, a mountain monster shaped as an ogre and honored during the Setsubun festival in February each year.
Moreover, the Hannya are also called Kijo (鬼女, lit. demon woman), a term that includes the vast majority of female characters in Japanese folklore who turn into demons but that is also used to describe any woman with such hideous hearts that they are literally considered as a demon by other people.
Note: In Japan, young women demons are called Kijo and older women are called Onibaba (鬼婆, “old lady demon”).
The legend of the female Oni comes essentially from its very popular mask that was used in Japanese Noh plays around the 16th century where the plot of the Hannya was steeped in tears and turmoil.
Indeed, according to Japanese folklore, Hannya are born when a woman who is strongly in love with a man is overcome by rage and jealousy to the point where these emotions consume her soul and turn her into a demon.
Other legends also say that when a woman dies with emotions of rage and jealousy, she also turns into a Hannya. As a result, women who commit suicide because they have been rejected, insulted, shunned or scorned by their lovers were greatly feared in the past as they were considered particularly likely to become Hannya.
Sadly, when a woman becomes a Hannya, it means that she is condemned to remain on Earth as a malevolent and destructive yurei (幽霊, lit. Ghosts), her anger overriding any residual human emotion or consciousness.
As you can see, it is a dark fate to become a Hannya because it means that the soul can never rest in peace, which is a particular fear of the Japanese who practice Shintoism. This explains why women in feudal Japan tried to avoid and suppress all emotions of rage and jealousy for fear that they too would become evil spirits.
Types of Hannya
In Japanese Folklore, there are 3 types of Hannya according to their level of power, darkness and jealousy:
Namanari is the first and weakest Hannya form. They still have a human appearance, but with horns and can use black magic to attack those who are jealous of him. Although they are evil beings, they still can regain their humanity back.
Chunari are the second most powerful and terrible Hannya, but that have not yet undergone a total transformation. They have large and sharp horns and fangs, a demon face and their magic is more powerful.
Honnari is the ultimate stage of the Hannya. They have now a full demon body that looks like a snake, can breathes fire and have magical power is more potent. Women who reach this level will be demons until the end of their days.
Powers and Abilities
As seen above, Hannya powers are numerous and become more powerful as the Hannya reaches its final stage of transformation. Here is a short list of the different abilities of the Hannya:
- can use black magic
- have superhuman strength
- can breath fire
- have the ability to bewitch and control men
- can enter other people’s dream and tourment them
Most famous Hannya stories
The three most famous hannya in Japanese and Asian literature are Lady Rokujō of Aoi no Ue, Kurozuka of Kurozuka, and Kiyo-hime of Rokujō-ji.
1. Lady Rokujo
Lady Rokujō (六条御息所, Rokujō no Miyasundokoro) is a Japanese woman who appears in the play Aoi no Ue based on the 11th century novel The Tale of Genji.
The story plot is based on the life of Hikaru Genji, a nobleman living in the Heian period. Abandoned by Genji when he becomes a father, Lady Rokujō cannot contain the hatred and jealousy that is consuming her soul. The blinding rage within her turns her into a female demon which leads her then to possess Genji’s wife and kill her for revenge.
Lady Rokujō’s transformation from a noblewoman to a Japanese demon has made her one of the most famous monsters in Japanese theatre. Her name comes from Rokujō, the area of Kyoto in which she lived.
Kurozuka (黒塚, lit. “black mound”) is the most famous demon woman in Japanese folklore. She can be seen in traditional Japanese art: painting, ukiyoe print, Noh play, Japanese print, Drama.
She is known by many names in Japanese culture such as Kurozuka, the witch of the “black mounds”, the Demoness of Adachigahara, Onibaba, or the demonic witch. This is the equivalent of a child of Satan in Western culture.
3. Kiyohime, the woman who became a snake Yokai
Kiyohime (清姫, lit. “Pure Lady”) is one of the most famous Japanese antagonists in Japanese literature and an example of a Hannya Honnari. She was a demon woman who reached the last stage of a Hannya transformation and owned powerful abilities.
She appears in The Legend of Anchin and Kiyo hime, or Princess Kiyo, an ancient tale from Wakayama Prefecture. Versions of the story appear in a number of ancient books. Her story is repeated in the famous play Dōjō-ji.
It tells the story of Kiyohime, the beautiful daughter of a landlord named Shouji, who lived on a large estate near the Hidaka River in present-day Wakayama Province. The family was wealthy but very religious, so they used to offer lodging to those passing through on pilgrimage to temples in the area.
One day, a handsome young monk came to ask for lodging, and Kiyohime fell in love with him at first sight. He too noticed her beauty and they spent the whole night talking in the gardens of the house.
The young priest promised that he would pass by again when he returned from his pilgrimage, but in the following days of solitary walking, full of meditations, he finally decided that, in order not to fall into temptation, it would be better to avoid passing by again and thus never see her again.
When the long-awaited day of the reunion arrived, Kiyohime waited and waited… and seeing that the monk did not arrive, she set out in search of him along the path he should have taken on his return from the temple, asking every person along the way, until she finally found him on the banks of the river. He tried to flee from her, and she flew into a rage and turned into a dragon.
The young man, fleeing, arrived at a temple, where he asked for refuge. The monks there decided to hide him inside the bell of the temple. When the dragon arrived, he noticed the presence of the priest in the bell and, unable to enter it, tried to melt it with his breath of fire, burning the monk inside.
The Hannya mask depicts a jealous demon, a snake and sometimes a dragon in Noh theater. Noh is a classical Japanese musical drama based on tales from traditional literature that has been performed since the 14th century where actors tell a story through gestures and appearances with masks.
The first Hanna mask dates back to 1558. The Hannya mask is one of the most recognisable masks in the Noh plays.
This mask represents female anger and grief and is used when a particular character needs to be invoked. These two emotions are difficult to capture at the same time. It represents a woman obsessed with the devil or taking on a demonic form.
The expression of Hannya’s mask is demonic, furious, frightening, dangerous and tormented, sad, poignant, melancholic and painful. She starts as a normal woman, but when she is betrayed, angry and jealous, she becomes a demon.
👉 Related article: Meaning and Types of Japanese Masks
Hannya masks have metallic colored eyes, wide open mouth with pointed teeth which amplifies its supernatural appearance and two sharp horns on the top of the head.
Noh masks like those of the Hannya used to be made of cypress wood, coated with paint and then covered with lacquer. They have the particularity of reflecting light, thus creating infinite shades of expression. These objects of art are generally smaller than the actor’s face, to which they are attached behind the head with ribbons.
In addition to the demonic characteristics, Hannya masks can be presented in various colors that differentiate the social status of the character being portrayed
- Very intense red: Indicates that the woman had an evil heart
- Light red: Symbolises a woman of lower class
- Green: Informs that the woman was terribly angry
- White: Means that the woman belongs to the aristocracy
One particularity of Hannya masks is that they can be used to reflect different emotions. When the mask is looked at directly, the Hannya looks angry while when it is looked from a lower position, she looks sad.
Hannya Mask Tattoo
Hannya mask tattoos are undoubtedly one of the most popular Japanese tattoos in the Land of the Rising Sun. These evils demons are drawn with their devil horns, scary eyes, a gleam in the pupils straight from hell, and a wide mouth with sharp teeth.
But behind this sinister grin lies a fascinating story and some interesting information you may not know.
As the mask was traditionally designed to change expression depending on the angle from which it was viewed, a Hannya tattoo design could represent the different stages of emotions of its owner.
Anger, jealousy, resentment: A Hannya tattoo can indicate that the person wearing it is ruthless. This is why the tattoo is so popular among the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). Indeed, a Yakuza member with this tattoo wants people to know that he shows no mercy and is a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Moreover, just like for the Oni Tattoo, Hannya Mask Tattoos are a symbol of protection from bad spirits and has a different meaning depending on the design and color of the tattoo.
It is believed that the deeper the color of a Hannya mask, the more angry or malevolent it is supposed to be.
A lighter colored Hannya mask means that the wearer is not yet a demon. The horns are often thinner and smaller in size. A lighter colored Hannya tattoo means that the wearer is still a human at this stage but is being found by demons.
A darker red will then represent someone who has already experienced an terrible past. A deep dark red symbolizes a person filled with rage who wishes to take revenge and spread terror.
Perhaps the Hannya mask should be limited to the traditional colors. There are designs that range from the original white and red to blue, purple, green, yellow, black or any other hue.
In short, the important thing here is that the tattoo represents the desired mood and fits in with the general colors used in the whole tattoo.
1. Hannya and Snake tattoo
A Hannya mask snake tattoo is one of the most popular Japanese tattoos among the yakuza. The snake represents luck and protection. In Japanese stories, the snake was also a symbol of immortality. Therefore, the tattoo of a Hannya mask in the shape of a snake can either signify good luck or emphasize that the wearer’s rage will never die.
For these Japanese mobsters, tattoos represent great virtues such as loyalty, patience, devotion and perseverance.
2. Hannya Koi Tattoo
In Shintoism this legendary fish represents bravery, strength and determination. A Hannya mask and koi tattoo symbolizes courage in situations that may provoke jealousy and revenge. On the other hand the koi fish and the Hannya mask could be a sign that the wearer is determined to wreak havoc.
3. Hannya Skull tattoo
The Japanese skull is a positive representation of the life cycle. It is usually used to honor the dead. It can also represent the underworld and demonic life.
4. Samurai Hannya Tattoo
The Japanese samurai warrior is a symbol of strength and discipline. Whereas hannya is a symbol of uncontrollable behaviour. This is a fascinating contrast of concepts for a tattoo. Thus a Hannya Mask Samurai tattoo could represent the eternal struggle between restrained thought (samurai) and uncontrolled emotions (Hannya) that can cause harm.
5. Geisha Hannya Mask Tattoo
Geishas represent female power and intrigue. She is an enigmatic entertainment figure and can only be enjoyed by certain people. She therefore also represents someone who is unapproachable. A Geisha and geisha tattoo means a woman who is emotionally complex and unapproachable. On a man, this combination could represent a woman in the man’s life who has similar traits.
6. Hannya Chrysanthemum Tattoo
Flowers are popular motifs that are often incorporated into tattoos of this Japanese devil. As this flower blooms in autumn, a Hannya chrysanthemum tattoo represents an anxious person who wants to escape his or her emotional state.
7. Hannya Tattoo Sakura
Cherry blossoms represent life after death or illness. A Hannya cherry blossom tattoo symbolises the beginning of a better life after facing a tormented past.
8. Hannya tattoo tidal waves
Like the Hannya, Japanese waves are unpredictable. Both the Hannya and the Japanese wave can be destructive. They can also have moments of calm and solitude.
9. Hannya tattoo with maple leaf pattern
Maple leaf pattern: leaves are a symbol of the cycle of life. The maple leaves and the mask could represent a person who is emotionally troubled and is looking forward to a better future.
10. Hannya Dragon Tattoo
In Eastern culture, the dragon is a benevolent creature. He uses his strength to do good. A Hannya mask and Dragon tattoo symbolises the struggle between using its power for hateful revenge and the quest for good.
11. Broken Hannya Mask Tattoo
A tattoo of a Broken Hannya Mask is a symbol of bad luck or loss of control due to jealousy. The Hannya Mask is a paradox, it is often associated with both positivity and negativity. This duality means that it can be seen as an amulet of luck, but also as evil incarnate.
Thus, a broken Hannya tattoo can also symbolise enlightenment, which transcends the ‘earthly’ mind and speaks of consciousness and the higher self. But conversely, it also symbolises “earthly” (mundane) human emotions and the lack of discipline to control them (jealousy, rage, anger, etc.). This is the opposite of enlightenment.
Part of the body
Hannya tattoos can be inked on most part of the body but most Japanese prefer them:
- On the back
- On the forearm
- On the torso
- On the calves
However, you need to remember that a full tattoo can take up to 500 hours of work! In fact, in Japan we have a saying called “Gaman curage” which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”.Enduring the unbearable must be the mark of a man and a true Yakuza!
A little advice though: if you are going to an onsen or ryokan and you come across a group of yakuza with full tattoos, you’d better not hang around too much!
Hannya in today’s Japanese Culture
As with the Oni, the Hannya are still extremely present in Japanese culture today. Indeed, although they basically represented negativity in the past, Hannya are now seen in a better light and as a symbol of good luck.
Indeed, it is not uncommon to find traces of this Japanese demon as a symbol of protection and benevolence all over the place, such as on key rings, phone covers and, of course, inked on the skin of some Japanese culture enthusiasts.
Even more, more and more people like to hang a Hannya mask in their home or in an important room in order to ward off evil spirits.
Hannya in Pop Culture
Wearing a hannya mask is very popular today in No theatre, but also in the media, arts, Japanese films and manga. You may have already seen it in Japanese cartoons or comics
In the anime Kakuriyo no Yadomeshi, we follow the adventures of Aoi Tsubaki. One day while passing in front of a torii shrine, she meets an Ayakahi (oni) sitting there and he tells her that he is hungry. This mysterious character hides his face behind a white hannya mask. However, after giving him some food from her bento box, Aoi is kidnapped by this ogre called Odanna.
In the Naruto series, a ninja commando (Anbu) from the hidden village of Wood, wears a demon mask Oni hannya.
All these allusions and representations have contributed greatly to Hannya’s popularity.