Masks are probably one of the things that you’re absolutely sick of hearing about after the last two or so years (along with hand sanitizer and curfews). However, this is not an article about that kind of mask. Before people were strapping on surgical masks to stop the spread of COVID-19, people in Japan were hanging masks on their walls for decoration or wearing them on their faces in theatre performances.
Masks have been used in religious festivals and community events, placed in homes and in shrines, and have appeared all over Japanese culture for thousands of years (some believe that Japanese mask art started as early as 10,000 BC).
However, while there are many different Japanese mask types that have distinct uses, histories, and styles, most of us who don’t hail from the Land of the Rising Sun aren’t able to tell the difference. And these different kinds of masks can open interesting windows into different periods of Japan’s history and help outsiders understand certain aspects of Japanese culture. At the very least, Japanese masks are just really cool to look at.
Mask making is an art form practiced all across the world, but Japan is certainly one of the nation’s most renowned for its ornate and unique masks. Some Japanese masks are cute, some are friendly, and some are downright terrifying. In this article, we’ll take a look at a few different kinds of traditional Japanese masks, where they originate from, and what they can tell us about Japanese culture.
In ancient Japan, humans and foxes lived very closely together. Over time, adherents to Shintoism began associating foxes with spirits (or kami) and believing that foxes were messengers of the god Inari.
In some folklore, these kitsune (fox spirits) were considered mischievous tricksters while in others they were protective guardians or friends. Kitsune were believed to have the ability to shapeshift into human form. They could also have as many as nine tails, with more tails signifying a greater age and greater wisdom.
There are several festivals throughout Japan dedicated to Inari, and so it’s common to see people wearing kitsune masks at certain times of the year. You can also find kitsune masks adorning people’s homes all year long. They’re often quite cute (if mischievous-looking).
Oni masks are some of the most recognizable of the traditional Japanese mask styles. These demons are often depicted as angry, red faces with long, sharp fangs. They’re also typically depicted with one or more horns coming out of their heads and blue, red, or white skin.
These demons appear commonly in Japanese literature, theatre, and painting. They’re also commonly used as the villain in Japanese fairytales, including the famous fairytale Momotaro.
People in Japan typically wear their oni masks around the festival of Setsubun (the Bean-Throwing Festival). Essentially, the festival involves people dressing up as oni and then people throwing raw beans at them, which is meant to bring about good luck for the rest of the year. Parents even run around their houses scaring their kids with oni masks while the kids throw beans at them.
Tengu masks look sort of similar to oni masks other than the fact that they have elongated noses. Tengu also differ from oni in that they’re generally welcomed into people’s homes as they’re believed to ward off bad spirits and bring good luck. However, though they are generally considered benevolent, tengu are also thought to be quite mischievous.
Typically, like oni, tengu are portrayed with a red face and an angry expression. In some sources, Tengu monkey-like or bird-like deities, and so they’re often depicted with a monkey’s tail or a set of avian wings. These spirits are also thought to be the protectors of the forest and can be dangerous to those trespassing in their environments.
Hyottoko is one of the most eccentric characters in Japanese mask-making culture. He’s portrayed as a bald man with a very silly expression on his face. He typically has his mouth puckered and cocked to one side or the other.
His name comes from the Japanese words for “fire” and “man” and his strange expression is due to the fact that most stories about him involve him blowing fire through a bamboo pipe. In some traditional dances from certain Japanese prefectures, he plays the role of the clown. In other prefectures, he’s considered the god of fire.
The origin of the legend of Hyottoko is pretty unclear. Some have speculated that the story developed from a similar character named Hyoutokusu who could create gold from his belly button. As follows, people would put masks of Hyoutokusu over their fireplace when someone in the house died to bring good fortune.
Okame is the female counterpart to Hyottoko and their masks usually appear together during theatrical performances and dances. Both of them are considered comical characters and performances involving these masks are usually quite silly.
Okame is meant to represent a happy and kindhearted Japanese woman who’s always smiling and brings good fortune to any man that is lucky enough to marry her. Okame is most often portrayed as a chubby, round-faced woman with delighted eyes.
The name Okame translates to English as “tortoise” (which is a symbol for long life in Japan). Okame is also sometimes referred to as Otafuku, which can be translated as “much good fortune.” Okame is usually considered to be a benevolent figure and, while it may seem strange today, this oval-faced woman may have once been considered the ideal of feminine beauty in Japan.
The label of a noh mask applies to a wide range of different archetypal characters used in noh theatre. This type of theatrical performance plays on traditional Japanese stories that everyone in the audience will be very familiar with.
Many of these performances feature the same characters and so use many of the same masks. Noh theatre dates back to the 14th century and is still performed almost daily in Japan, making it the oldest theatrical art in the world that is still regularly performed in the modern era.
There are hundreds of types of noh masks out there, but many of them have similar characteristics. Some of the main basic forms include otoko (which is a mask of a man), jo (which is the mask of an old man), onna (a woman mask), kishin (a malevolent demon mask), and onryo (which is a mask of some sort of otherworldly creature).
Kyogen masks are very closely linked to noh theatre as well. These kinds of masks are typically used for comic relief performances during the intermissions in noh theatre. Noh performances are often rather grave and solemn, and so kyogen performances are used to momentarily lighten the mood for the audience.
Unlike noh masks which usually depict humans or deities, kyogen are often depictions of animals. In kyogen performances, actors will often crawl around the stage and act like animals, causing the entire crowd to erupt with laughter.