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The Definitive Guide to Japanese Masks and Their Meanings

Japanese Masks and Meanings
In ancient Japan, masks were of great importance for performing rituals and plays. The different characters and creatures including common people, deities, ghosts, heroes, animals and devils were depicted with these masks.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2018
The use of masks in Japan started from 10,000 BCE. Apart from their use in plays and rituals, masks were also used to cover the face of the deceased. It was believed that masks helped deflect malevolent spirits. There are many interesting facts to know about the masks that originated in Japan. Let us find more on this topic.
Oldest Hannya Mask
The oldest Hannya mask can be dated to year 1558. The origin of Hannya masks is however, difficult to trace. An artist called Hannya-bo is said to be the first person to carve a Hannya mask.
Samurai Mask
Samurai Mask
Samurais were the warriors from ancient Japan who shouldered the responsible for protecting the nobility. In the 16th century, masks were added to the armor of samurais to serve as protection for the face and head. Many variations were observed in Samurai masks. In fact, these masks helped in finding more about the clan to which a Samurai warrior belonged.
Oni Mask
The most prominent characteristics of an Oni mask are its large eyes and sharp teeth. In Japan, the term, Oni is used in reference with a devil or demon. However, it is believed the Oni possesses a dual nature i.e. it can be evil or good.
Hannya Mask
Hannya Mask
The Hannya mask represents a woman-turned-demon. The demon is represented with metallic eyes, pointed horns and teeth. Expressions carved on the Hannya masks are those of anger and resentment; the mask is used to depict expressions of the face of a jealous and vengeful woman. A red colored mask is associated with anger of higher intensity.
Gigaku Mask
Gigaku Mask
It is the oldest form of masks used in Japan. Gigaku is actually a dance drama from ancient Japan. Masks associated with the dance form are therefore, known as Gigaku masks. The Gigaku mask was brought to Japan from Korea in the 7th century. Gigaku masks were used to represent faces of birds, lions, demons and superhumans; the masks were made of paulownia wood.
Ondekomen
The 'Ondekomen', also known as 'Devil Mask' is one of the traditional Japanese masks used in 'Ondeko', an art form practiced by the people of Sado island of Japan. The design of Ondekomen mask is such that the person wearing it enjoys a clear and wide vision.
Gyodo
Gyodo masks are used to represent Buddhist figures, dragon gods, guardian deities and bishamonten. These masks cover the whole face and are generally used for outdoor Buddhist processions. Most of today's Gyodo masks belong to the Heian period.
Bugaku Masks
Bugaku Masks
These masks are made from cypress wood. However, some of them are also made of dry lacquer (from the 8th century). Such masks cover only the face of the person wearing them; these masks do not cover the ears. Dimensions of the Bugaku mask are: 7-13 inch. (length), 6-9 inch. (width) and 4-7 inch. (depth).
Otoko
Uba
The Otoko mask represents young people who enjoy a higher status in the society. These masks are mostly used for depicting young men with a warrior-like expression. There are many variations in the way expressions of these masks are portrayed. Those masks, of men, with hair on the sides portray a simple person without an aristocratic appearance. The Otoko mask is also used to portray a young woman's face.
Uba
The Uba mask represents old women. These masks are commonly used in a play called 'Takasago'. The hair of Uba masks are colored gray. Drawing furrows and lines helps in making the mask appear like the face of an old woman.
Komote
The Komote masks depict a calm, composed and beautiful face of a woman. The Komote masks were used by men who played female characters in Noh plays. Changes in the masks were brought about by making them rounded and fuller and parting their lips a little bit. Carving and painting the facial features can add more sensuality to Komote masks.
Shikami
Shikami
The Shikami is a demon mask with features like furrowed brows, fang-like teeth and a snarling mouth. This mask is used to display ferocious expressions and thereby, the nature of demons. The color used for painting a Shikami should represent rage or anger. Teeth and eyes of these masks are painted in metallic gold.
The information on Japanese masks and meanings explained in short in the article, should be useful to readers. The Gigaku and Hannya are some of the oldest and important face masks in the Japanese tradition. The descriptions include basic information and thus, presents an overview of the Japanese culture and purpose behind using these masks.