As you should know, Japanese masks own a very important place in Japanese Culture. From theatrical to religious and even festive, each Japanese Mask has a well-defined meaning and its usefulness. However, these traditional accessories still remain a mystery for many readers and Land of the Rising Sun enthusiasts who wonder what do Japanese masks mean and symbolize. Here is a little introduction:
The Japanese mask was an old facial accessory used in Japanese theater since the 7th century by performers to portray different characters such as people, folklore creatures, ghosts, animals and even the devil. Moreover, the Japanese Mask is intimately linked to Japanese mythology and religion as it was also frequently used during religious festivals and rituals. Today, Japanese Masks are still part of modern Japanese culture, but mostly used by theater actors, Shinto dancers or as decoration in shrines and martial arts dojos.
Do you want to learn more about these famous masks from Japan? Then let’s discover together the history of Japanese masks and the meaning of each one of them:
History of Japanese Masks
The history of the very first Japanese traditional masks called Kamen (仮面, lit. mask or “passing face”) dates back to the 7th century. At that time, Kamen, imported to Japan from mainland Asia and Korea in particular, were used in art such as dance and music.
At that time, the first type of performance art in Japan associated with these masks was called Gigaku (伎楽) or Kure-gaku (呉楽). This now extinct Japanese performance art used masks carved from wood, usually cypress, and that were then lacquered. Indeed, lacquer allowed better improvised scenes with interesting plays of light and shadow, as Junichirô TANIZAKI explains in his essay on Japanese aesthetics In Praise of Shadow:
“Wood finished in glistening black lacquer is the very best […] In fact, Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware…
Subsequently, the Japanese theaters Kyōgen (狂言) and Noh (能, Noh), which appeared around the 14th century, incorporated the Kamen in their structure unlike in Kabuki (歌舞伎) theater where the masks are replaced by elaborate makeup.
For those who do not know these two types of art:
- Kyōgen Teather is rather comical; it is an interlude between two Noh plays, with Kamen with exaggerated or even absurd projections.
- Noh Teather is more dramatic; performers use masks with simple features which adapt to the different attitudes of the actor.
Moreover, one very important point In these two theatrical forms is that the actor becomes one with his mask and inhabits the character through it,
There are thus no less than 250 masks in the Noh Theater! Called Nohmen (能面), some of them represent malignant and bitter old men, others pain-ridden faces that are in fact spirits of the deceased in the world of the living, seeking repentance or revenge. As for the Kyōgen, there are only about fifty masks.
Types of Japanese Masks and their Meaning
As explained previously, Gigaku masks are the oldest existing masks in Japan used in Gigaku, an ancient dramatic dances that, according to legend, came to Japan from Korea in the 7th century.
Gigaku masks had dramatic expressions carved on their faces and were used to portray the face of a superman, a demon, a lion or a bird. They covered the whole head and were usually made of wood.
As explained earlier, the Noh Mask, made of wood, painted and lacquered is the central element of the Noh Theater. Symbolically, the purpose of Noh masks was to make the actor disappear behind the archetype of the character he embodies. In the rare pieces where the shite doesn’t wear a mask, he has to show a face as impassive as possible.
However, from a more practical point of view, Noh masks also and above all had the purpose of transmitting several information to the spectators about the characters who wear them.
By observing them attentively, one can know the age, the sex, the social class and even the state of mind of a character, each mask allowing to condense all this information.
Kyōgen masks are similar to Noh masks, except that they are less serious. Kyōgen theater is a type of comedy theather that uses masks designed to make the audience laugh. Thus, most Kyōgen masks have happy expressions or are extremely distorted. While Noh masks for a single performance can number in the hundreds, there are only around 20 different types of masks in a Kyōgen performance.
Bukagu is a type of Japanese dance performance practiced in Japan for centuries. Like Noh or Kyogen plays, Bugaku needed its artists to wear crafted masks, those could be made of dry lacquer or wood.
Bugaku masks were used to portray one of the 20 regular characters in Bugaku. They were traditionally made of cypress wood and covered only the performer’s face. The expressions were not as exaggerated as in the gigaku style. and used to have moving parts, such as the chin.
Onnamen (女面, lit. Female Masks) are wooden masks with a female face carved on them that were used since the 15th century in Noh Theater. Indeed, traditionally, women were not allowed to act in Noh Theater, thus the purpose of the Onnamen was to turn men into a female character.
There are different types of onna-men to specify the beauty or social class of the character:
- Ko-omote, Wakaonna, Zo and Magojiro: The masks that represent the beautiful women
- Omiona: The masks that represent women from the working class
- Fukai and Shakumi: The masks that represent old women
The history of Tengu has evolved enormously since its beginnings. If it was once a symbol of terror, war and evil, the Tengu mask is now a symbol of protection and prosperity widely used in Noh theater, manga and Shinto festivals.
Indeed, this mask with a red face with a very long nose represents the protective characteristics of the Tengu as they are known to repel evil spirits. This is the main reason why we can find lots of Tengu masks in some temples and sanctuaries as they play the role of guardian
Today, many people believe that a Tengu mask is a sign of good luck. It would keep away bad influences and promote prosperity in business. These masks are also very popular during big festivals and celebrations such as the Setsubun.
Here are the most common types of Tengu masks and what they mean:
Daitengu: they are wise and benevolent beings very venerated in Japan. They usually rule the mountains, but can use their human appearance to kidnap men who enter the forests, thus awakening their wrath.
- Kotengu: less agile than their predecessor, they inspire humor for those who know their history.
- Ona-Tengu: they represent Buddhist nuns who are too full of themselves. The character they embody is a seductive spirit filled with malice.
- Guhin: very benevolent, they are mediators with nature, but can also become very irritable when they are angry.
The Kitsune (狐) is the famous magic fox of Japanese tales and is, in Shinto religion, the messenger of the goddess of harvest and trade called Inari. With such a notoriety and such powers, it is not unusual that masks with the effigy of the famous Japanese Fox have success.
Kitsune Masks are used since Feudal Japan to worship the Goddess Inari and ask her to bring prosperity in business and the best harvest possible.
Kitsune Masks are mainly seen in matsuri, Japanese festivals or during dances. In Japan, the tradition of kitsune no yomeiri (狐の嫁入り), “the wedding of the fox” , also invokes the figure of this mischievous animal. It is a festival in honor of an old legend.
At night, fire-foxes would appear in the woods and on darkened roads. While some people translate this as a ploy by fox-spirits to lead travelers astray, others believe it is their breath, kitsunebi (狐火), “fox-fire.” Since it is always perceived as a double, the wanderers concluded that it was the marriage of two kitsune. Therefore, the kitsune no yomeiri celebrates a couple with fox faces, but the guests can also wear the kitsune mask.
Kitsune masks are also used as a decorative element in a room for example.
Since the beginning, Oni are one of the most popular demonic creature in Japanese Folklore, proof of this is that it even has its own emoji 👹. Its name derives from “On” which means to hide, and in ancient times prayers and offerings were made to this demon, because it was believed that they were very unpleasant spirits that caused natural disasters and diseases.
As the belief being an evil Yokai was disappearing along the years, Oni started to be worshiped as protectors and saviors, and even celebrated during popular events every year.
Thus, owning and wearing Oni masks became something usual for Japanese people for the purposes of worshiping them and ask for their protection. Even today in Japan, it is believed that owning an Oni Mask can save you from terminal illnesses, save your harvest or your home from storms and disasters.
Since carrying this Japanese mask with you can be helpful, there have been created countless forms of it, there are key chains, pendants and even tattoos. So if you are considering getting a tattoo of the Japanese Oni mask, now you know it could be a good idea!
The legend of the Hannya has often been, for many years, taken up in fiction, in particular in Noh plays where Hannya masks were used to represent a woman so jealous that she turned into a demon.
Hannya are part of the Yokai group in Japanese Folklore and recognized as a female version of the Oni. They usually look like a woman with a red face, two sharp bull-like horns, metallic eyes, and a leering mouth.
It exists on the market many masks with its effigy; the representation hardly changes, but on the other hand, there are masks of different colors. According to the color, it is said that each one of them has a specific meaning.
- Red Hannya Mask: Represents jealousy and the crime of passion that this can cause.
- Green Hannya Mask: Represents more the anger, even the rage of the woman hurt and scorned by her man.
Kappa Masks were used in Noh Theater to portray the famous Kappa, a river monster that can attack people that get a little too close to the shore. Actors used these masks in different plays where they capture men and challenge them to a sumo wrestling match.
Hyottoko represents a spirit that wears a white scarf with blue dots and blows fire through a bamboo tube. Hyottoko’s name derives from hi (火, lit. Fire) and otoko (男, lit. man) which together means the Fire Man or The man who spits fire.
Widely used in Kyōgen plays to play comic characters meant to make the audience laugh, in particular thanks to its aberrant dances, the Hyottoko Mask is also used by the Japanese as a decorative ornament over a fireplace to bring good fortune to families after the death of a loved one.
This custom originates from the story of a boy named Hyoutokusu who, said, could produce gold through his belly button. So, to bring good luck, families in Japan started to worship Hyottoko by placing his mask over a fireplace when they needed support, like after a decease.
Nowadays, it is mostly commoners who wear this special face, for the happiness of the passers-by. Often, we meet Hyottoko accompanied by a Okame, his funny and smiling companion.
Okame masks were used to represent an idealized form of feminine beauty in Kyogen Theater and are a symbol of good fortune.
The Okame is the cherub-faced wife of Hyottoko, a cheerful lady who is the Japanese goddess who brings fortune and joy. Its masks became popular in a form of Japanese theater called Kyogen where there are no female actresses. So, Okame Masks were also used to give life to characters of any sex or aspect in order to become more involved in the story.
Samurai masks called either Menpo, Mengu or Men-Yoroi were pieces of facial armor worn by Japanese Samurai in Feudal Japan that fully or partially covered their face and to secure their helmet (kabuto).
The primary purpose of most Menpō masks was to terrorize their enemies. Indeed, it was very common for Mengu masks to contain long whiskers, large noses, demon-like fangs and aggressively shaped mouths.
Mengu masks were also used to perform rituals in which they risked their own lives to become real inhuman beings on the battlefield when it came to killing. Some of the rituals could consist of not eating and drinking, not sleeping, enduring in icy waters, receiving the pressure of waterfalls for hours or even hanging themselves.
These rituals were part of the belief that if they managed to survive, a part of their soul died, but was replaced by that of a demon, but only if they were brave warriors.
Many of them came to suffer hallucinations in which they claimed to see these demons. After they had passed the tests and saw their demon face to face, they would put its image on their masks as a symbol that in battle the demon would take over their being and no one would be able to stop it.
Note: Men Yoroi are similar to a type of mask worn by Chinese infantry from the Han to Song dynasties.
Gyodo masks came into use around 792 to 1185 and was used in Buddhist processions for various events, such as the dedication of a new temple. The masks were designed to represent various Buddhist figures, including deities, gods and demons. They were oversized, covering the entire face and more.
Like Noh, kabuki is also a theatrical art form, but unlike its predecessor, kabuki does not use masks as such, but the actors represent their character with facial makeup using various techniques and colors, and as a regulatory basis, rice powder must be used.
(Bonus) Kendo Mask
Kendo masks called Men (面) are Head and neck protectors attached to the shoulder and throat armor. The Kendo Mask is lined with a grid on the front called Men-gane to protect the face. The men-gane grille should never touch the floor of the dojo, it is considered disrespectful.
Japanese Masks Today
For obvious reasons, there is not much use for all the traditional masks seen previously in our modern world. However, there are still masks worn by the majority of young people in Japan, these are called the Masuku.
👉 Related article: Why do Japanese people wear masks in public
Masuku (マスク), which means literally “mask” in Japan, is the Japanese Face mask worn by Japanese people to prevent spreading contagious diseases.
However, with the arrival of the global pandemic, fashion has taken upon of this accessory to make it more glamorous. Today, the Masuku has become a trendy accessory that can be worn to emphasize their style and that can adapt to every type of outfit and to every mood!