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A woman in a blue kimono is wearing a Japanese mask in the kitsune style.
A woman in a blue kimono is wearing a Japanese mask in the kitsune style.

​​Japanese Mask: Diving into the Secrets of a Famous Icon!​​

Karina IkedoKarina Ikedo
Published Time
Posted on May 25, 2023

The Japanese mask has an important place in Japanese culture. Each has a well-defined meaning, from theatrical to religious and even festive!

In other words, if you’re a Japanese traditional and pop culture fan, you would have seen the various worn masks. Masks can be seen anywhere from anime characters such as No Face in Spirited Away to performances.

Masks are a way of expressing emotion, celebrating, and paying respect to the history of Japan. Let’s dive deep into the culture and explore the iconic Japanese mask and the stories behind their craft!

What is a Japanese Mask?

People of Japanese descent often wear a famous headwear known as a Japanese mask. These masks serve as face coverings to conceal the wearer’s identity. They find frequent use in traditional theater performances and kamishibai (traditional storytelling) events, where Japanese storytelling takes place.

A person painting a white kitsune Japanese mask.
The Japanese mask conveys characters, legends, and especially emotions! Image via Shutterstock

In recent years, the popularity of Japanese masks has significantly increased, earning them the status of cultural icons. People actively wear these masks during essential ceremonies or events, and one can easily spot their prevalence throughout Japan. Masks forge close associations with popular cultural themes, such as horror movies and video games.

History of the Japanese Mask

During the Jomon period, people primarily crafted masks from clay for prehistoric religious rituals. Among them, the ataka mask gained renown for its intricate carving from shells. However, with the advent of Buddhism, masks transitioned to serve broader secular functions.

A kabuki performance on stage with two actors wearing white tops and red hakama.
Japanese masks play a massive role in the theater! Image via Shutterstock

Dancers wore masks for religious cults, including the gigaku (a type of Japanese dance drama). As a significant element of the show, the mask comes to life when worn on stage. The actor merges with the character by wearing the mask on his face. 

The Most Famous Japanese Masks

Japanese culture is famous for its diverse and captivating masks, each with unique significance. Among the most iconic masks are the fearsome Hannya, representing jealousy and rage; the serene Noh masks symbolizing various emotions; and the whimsical Tengu masks, embodying mythical creatures.

Three Japanese masks, including a kitsune and hyottoko mask.
The Japanese mask has a rich history, especially in the theater. Image via Shutterstock

The Noh and Kyogen masks also hold cultural and spiritual importance, conveying character traits and emotions during traditional theater performances. Here are some even more masks that you should know about!

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Tengu: The Japanese Supernatural Mask

Tengu are the fearsome demi-gods who protect the mountains. Their most noticeable feature is a long, red nose. Tengu is a Shinto god with roots in Chinese religion, inspired by the image of Tiangou (Chinese dog demon). You’ll typically find traditional tengu masks made from wood, paper mache, and plastic. 

A Japanese tengu mask. It's red and has a long nose.
A tengu is a group of supernatural beings who live in the mountains. Image via Shutterstock

This mask represents the protective characteristics of the tengu, as–according to legend, they can repel evil spirits. This is the main reason why we can find a lot of Tengu masks in some temples and sanctuaries. In the past, the tengu was more birdlike. As they became human, that beak became a nose but kept its long shape. 

Theater performers usually wear tengu masks to portray legends and stories. They’re also popular decorations, as the tengu ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. If you have seen tengu before, check your keyboard, as the emoji version of tengu has been available since 2015!

Kitsune

There are several fascinating stories about the enigmatic Japanese character, kitsune (fox). But kitsune is not your regular fox. The kitsune is the famous magic fox of Japanese tales with the ability to shapeshift. They were also messengers of inari (the Shinto god of rice, commerce, and prosperity). 

So, they are important figures in Shinto festivals involving this god. To attract good favors and ensure a good harvest! The kitsune story is so famous that you can often find masks, costumes, and souvenirs based on this iconic fox. Sometimes instead of wearing the mask, people apply makeup like a kitsune mask. 

A person wearing a white kitsune mask at a festival.
In Japanese mythology, the kitsune is a messenger of the Shinto rice god. On Image via Shutterstock

Kitsune masks are a part of the Japanese anime culture. You can even see this mask featured in the globally famous anime Demon Slayer! Kimetsu no Yaiba depicts a scene where the main character receives a beautiful spell-bound kitsune mask after completing the training. 

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Noh

Noh is one of the oldest forms of classical Japanese theater. It developed in the 14th century and continues to captivate audiences with its powerful stories and compelling performances.

Because all actors in the drama were male, they used masks to portray the characters of women and older men. Although women now participate in noh theater, masks are vital in preserving the culture.

A ghostly noh Japanese mask. It has a round face., narrow eyes, and red lips.
The noh mask originated during the Muromachi period (1392-1573). image via Shutterstock

The noh mask, made of wood, painted, and lacquered, is the central element of this art form. The main character of a noh play is shite, and the supporting characters are tsure. Actors with exposed faces depict some of the human characters. At the same time, actors wearing wooden masks represent non-human characters such as gods, monsters, or kami (spirits or deities).

Moreover, creating these fantastic masks is considered an actual work of art. One of the most exciting facts about these masks is that they can show different emotions to the audience.

As a result, using subtle tilting movements of the head, noh actors can show hidden emotions carved into the masks. There are around 250 types of noh masks that exist today! Each mask represents the age, gender, and social ranking of human and non-human characters.

Hyottoko

Who never dreamed of producing gold with their belly button? That’s precisely the power of Hyottoko, a legendary young man in Japan. Hyottoko is a silly, childlike figure with a comical expression. His mouth is almost always rounded and skewed to one side. His most famous trait is blowing fire with a bamboo pole!

A performer wearing a hyottoko mask, which resembles an old man blowing air through the side of his mouth.
The hyottoko mask is one of the funnier masks that people wear! Image via Wikicommons

The design of the hyottoko mask is very distinctive. It has a long, pointed nose and exaggerated facial features. This mask is also very colorful, with bright red, yellow, and green paint colors. The colors are meant to give the character an even more playful personality. 

Hyottoko originated from hi (fire) and otoko (man). After all, he is the god of fire! Hyottoko brings good luck to families of deceased people. The mask features dengaku (the Japanese traditional dance), where it plays as a clown-like figure. Hyottoko dance is believed to originate from the Edo period and has been passed down for generations to come since then!

Okame

Another mask that revolves around excitement and joy is okame, which depicts a cherub-faced woman. She is portrayed as a woman with a large, oval-shaped head and smiling eyes. This smiling mask with childish features is an authentic lucky charm that brings luck and a long life. This is the feminine version of hyottoko, with whom she often appears as a duo. 

A person wearing an okame Japanese mask. It's white and has very chubby cheeks.
Okame is based on “Amenouzume,” a legendary dancing princess. Image via Shutterstock

She is also named otafuku, which stands for fortune. But unlike hyottoko, okame is limited to a smaller region. In theaters, okame is worn by dancers who perform silly steps to make their audience laugh and spread joy. Would you order an okame mask and try to make a fortune?

The Japanese tradition is one of the oldest and most fascinating cultures worldwide. Japanese masks are one of the most fascinating features of the country’s tradition.

Whether used in traditional plays or as part of a cosplay costume, these masks evoke a strong reaction. They can make cosplay outfits sparkle and make someone look cool! Which of the above masks and their origin story captivated you the most? Let us know in the comments below!

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