Stacy Lee
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

N95s, KN95s, KF94s, 3-ply-surgical, cotton masks; bandanas and face shields. Been there, done that. Still doing it. 

We have been inundated with masks during the past year and a half. For Americans, it is the new normal. And although the Japanese in Japan are more accustomed to wearing them, they too have adjusted to wearing them practically 24/7.

In fact, the Japanese have been wearing them since the early 20th century when many parts of the world, including Japan were hit by an influenza pandemic. Soon after, the Japanese donned masks again in Tökyö and Yokohama following the Great Kantö Earthquake of 1923 which led to smoke and ash from fires that raged throughout these cities. Once again, during the post-World War II industrial period, people wore masks because of air pollution.

With the rise of air pollution and more carbon dioxide, cedar trees began to flourish in Japan causing more pollen allergies. Again, masks were needed to alleviate the pollen problem.

Also, masks are often worn in Japan as a common courtesy towards others. But with Halloween fast approaching, now is a great time to examine a few traditional and contemporary masks of Japan.

Gigaku mask. Treasure of Höryü-ji Temple. (Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Gigaku mask. Treasure of Höryü-ji Temple. (Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Gigaku Masks

BOO! Striking and expressive, gigaku masks are some of the oldest masks worn by the Japanese. Along with Buddhism, Confucianism and a court-rank system, early 7th century, semi-legendary historical figure, Prince Shötoku (574-622), might also be credited with promoting gigaku.

Gigaku is an ancient Japanese Buddhist dance-drama meaning skilled-music or -entertainment. Believed to have originated in Kashgar and then spreading to China, gigaku is thought to have been brought to Japan by a Korean named Mimashi around the year 612 CE. Performances took place at Buddhist temples in Nara. They resembled lively processional dance dramas and occurred during Buddhist-related ceremonies such as the annual celebration of Buddha’s birthday or the celebratory commemoration of the 49-foot tall bronze Buddha at Tödaiji Temple in the year 712 C.E. 

Contrary to the serious nature of Buddhism, dancers entertained audiences of monks, courtiers and aristocrats with comedic movements similar to pantomime. They included pantomime dances with characters such as the Chinese prince of Wu, a mythical Indian Garuda bird or even a wrestler. The performances even included lion dances, which may be a predecessor of today’s Japanese shishi lion dances. A small orchestra consisting of a flute, hip drums and brass cymbals provided the accompanying music.

Besides robes of silk, the dancers wore expressive, and sometimes, comical masks made of wood and dry lacquer that covered the upper part of the head, ears and face. Although this form of dance died out during the Heian period (794-1185), hundreds of these ancient masks are preserved in temples and museums in Japan as well as a few other museums around the world.

Kitsune (fox) mask. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Kitsune (fox) mask. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Kitsune Masks

Trick not treat. Kitsune (fox) masks show up in a variety of settings in Japan, from festivals to theater performances. Foxes, after all, play an important role in Japanese religion and folklore. In Japan, they are looked upon as a duality. Genko are good foxes, while yako are bad foxes. Zenko may be associated with the Shintö god, Inari, or god of agriculture, rice and prosperity. 

Foxes are thought to be messengers of Inari. In accordance, foxes are considered benevolent or protectors of people. Zenko foxes may transmit wisdom of Inari to humans or even become guardians of households bringing its occupants wealth and prosperity. Yako foxes, on the other hand, are mischievous to the point of being malevolent and destructive. 

Definitely befitting the image of a cunning, wily trickster, actions of Yako foxes may include stealing valuables, leading travelers astray and ruining people. Their supernatural powers are great. Foxes can shapeshift into human form, generate fire or lightning, fly, be invisible, create illusions, manifest dreams and even human possession called kitsunetsuki 

Like a creepy western Halloween tale, yako foxes take possession of humans by entering their bodies from beneath their fingernails. Foxes often take the shape of beautiful women who seduce men. One of the only ways that humans are able to discern that a fox has taken on human form is if the fox gets careless, or drunk and allows its tail to be seen. Hiding their tail or tails often proves difficult for some foxes as they may even have nine of them. The number of tails indicates a fox’s age or power.  

Nine-tail foxes called kyübi-no-kitsune gain the omniscient ability to see and hear anything happening in the world. The popular Pokemon Go character, Ninetales, is derived from this fox.

With all these abilities, it is no wonder that kitsune masks often appear in noh and kyögen drama as well as in performances and religious festivals. Because the fox is a messenger of the Shintö god Inari, kitsune masks are seen at various autumn harvest festivals that take place during the months of August-November. Festival attendees are able to purchase kitsune masks to join in with the festivities.

Noh Hannya mask.
Noh Hannya mask.

Hannya Masks

Diabolic Demon. Whether as a tattoo motif or mask, the hannya is a frightening character. The hannya mask, like many other Japanese masks, makes its appearance in noh theater, and its character is one of a jealous, enraged, evil woman who has transformed into a demon. 

The usual features of a hannya mask include fangs, a wide mouth, threatening teeth and expressive eyes. Rather than just anger and deranged jealousy, however, the character of the hannya is more complex. The mask also is made to reflect melancholic pain and suffering that so often accompanies jealousy and rage. 

The mask itself displays different emotions depending on the angle of the viewer. If one looks directly at the front, they encounter the angry demon. However, from a different, downward angle, the demon may emote sadness or suffering. Besides the contrasting emotions, different colors of hannya masks represent social status. White masks signify an aristocratic or noble heritage, while red masks signified those of a lower class. Darker, red masks symbolized the true demons. 

To complicate things a bit more, there are three different stages of becoming a hannya demon. The weakest of the demons is the namanari hannya, which has two horns, but still has some semblance of a human. The namanari hannya uses black magic to accomplish its aims. The chunari hannya, however, uses more powerful black magic, is a bit more diabolical and has longer horns and fangs to reflect this. Finally, beware of the honnari hannya. The most powerful of the three, these demons have the body of a serpent, can breathe fire and are so enraged with jealousy that there is no saving them.

One example from a famous noh drama in which an actor dons a hannya mask is in the famous noh play, “Döjöji.” In this play Kiyohime falls in love with a Buddhist monk, Anchin. Anchin had earlier led the princess on. Unfortunately, Anchin rejects her, and she transforms into a vengeful and enraged serpent who ends up killing the young monk while he hides in a bell at Döjöji Temple.

A samurai helmet with a half-face mask from the Edo Period (1615-1650).
A samurai helmet with a half-face mask from the Edo Period (1615-1650).

Samurai Mengu

Without a doubt, samurai were fierce warriors. They had to be, for according to the Bushidö Code, if they failed to accomplish their mission, or brought dishonor to their lord, they would have to pay the ultimate price. Thus, besides brutal fighting skills, an added measure to ensure samurai success would be a fearsome mask. Attached to the samurai’s helmet, these masks came in all shapes and sizes and functioned to not only intimidate one’s opponent, but may have also served as some added protection in battle.

As the style of fighting evolved after the Heian Period, and because battles lasted longer, another probable function of the later samurai mask was to counterbalance the weight of the samurai’s helmet and to protect the face from the constant chafing from the cord that secured the helmet to the samurai’s head. 

The general term for samurai facial armor is mengu, a word created from men meaning mask, and gu which may be translated as tool or equipment. Made from iron or leather and finished with lacquer, there were four types of face armor: the hanhö protected the chin and part of the neck, the happuri shielded the forehead and cheeks, the menpö protected the samurai’s nose, cheeks, jaw and chin, and the sömen covered basically the entire face, except for the nose. Of the four types of masks, the menpö is perhaps the most familiar one with its intimidating, fierce expressions and sinister mouth. 

The first mengu began appearing in Japan during the Heian Period. These masks of the happuri style mostly protected the forehead and cheeks of the warriors of this time. Later, at the end of the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), samurai began sporting the half mask, or me-no-shita men (below the eyes), also known as menpö. Two styles of the menpö emerged, one being fiercer and more aggressive in appearance, ressei, while the other had a more refined ryübu appearance. Characteristics that gave many of the ressei masks a more intimidating appearance included facial wrinkles on both sides of the mask, a bristle moustache, a small goatee and a raised ridge on the bridge of the nose, and flared nostrils. Creatures that provided the hair for these fearsome looking masks include bear, raccoon and yak.

Tengu mask.
Tengu mask.

Tengu Masks

Amongst the many yökai (supernatural creatures, spirits and demons) of Japanese folklore, tengu is one of the most common as it appears in Japanese literature, drama, folklore, anime and art. Because it is closely associated with Shintö and Buddhism, some also consider tengu to have a minor god status rather than being a yökai. Whichever the case, the long nosed/beaked, red-faced, winged character with a human body evolved from a Chinese mythological creature, Tiangou, which is likened to a celestial dog. Thus, the kanji characters for tengu are the characters for heaven and dog.

In Japan, the crimson-faced, angry looking tengu is often portrayed as a mischievous or comical supernatural being with magical powers including shapeshifting and possession amongst others. Making their appearance early in Japanese history, reference to tengu first appeared in an early historical book, the “Nihon Shoki” or “Chronicles of Japan,” in the 8th century.

Tengu possess a complicated persona — sometimes good, sometimes evil. By the 12th century, besides being associated as mountain spirits or protectors, tengu also became associated with the Buddhist concept of evil. Many at this time believed that tengu acted against Buddhism by taking such actions as steering Buddhist monks away from enlightenment through malicious methods such as deceit, abduction or destroying temples.

Today, they are said to take the form of a yamabushi or mountain ascetics, or they are worshipped as protectors of certain mountains in Japan. Tengu are written about in all forms of and literature including court literature, Buddhist tales, diaries, and war stories. They even appear in narrative scroll paintings. 

Two types of tengu exist, the daitengu and the kotengu. Characterized as a semi-human with wings, a long nose and red face, the daitengu are oftentimes troublemakers. They may cause wars or natural disasters. Sometimes depicted holding a fan, they have the power to stir up powerful winds and may cause weather related catastrophes. 

Daitengu are associated with the Japanese mountain religion known as Shugendö. One of the most famous daitengu, Söjöbö, a powerful, mythical king of the tengu, is said to possess excellent martial abilities and knowledge of military tactics. Legend states that the great warrior, Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189), received martial training from this tengu at Mount Kurama.

The kotengu, also known as karasutengu (crow tengu), are often portrayed as more bird-like with a beak. More avian than the slightly evolved daitengu, kotengu take possession of humans, and shapeshift to play tricks on their victims. However, easily fooled, the kotengu is sometimes susceptible to the tricks of humans. 

In one story, “The Tengu’s Gourd,” a gambler tricks a tengu by announcing that he is afraid of gold (money). He then asks the tengu what it fears. The tengu answers that he is afraid of thorny plants, whereupon the gambler attacks the tengu with his object of fear. With revenge in mind, the tengu retaliates and makes it rain money, much to the joy of the gambler. 

By the 18th and 19th century, however, the image of tengu as evil or mischievous softened somewhat, and the tengu came to be known more as protectors of mountains and other aspects of nature. Mischievous trickster, evil doer, mountain protector, martial arts teacher, whatever form this mythical creature assumes, the Japanese continue to don tengu masks during noh dramas and at festivals, or they display them in various places.

Animegao kigurumi — a type of cosplay that involves a person wearing a mask and costume to represent various anime characters.
Animegao kigurumi — a type of cosplay that involves a person wearing a mask and costume to represent various anime characters.

Anime Kigurumi

Any day can be Halloween. Like many annual events, Honolulu’s Kawaii Kon hasn’t been held recently because of the pandemic. However, the three-day celebration, which highlights Japanese pop culture and anime is scheduled to be held in April of next year. At that time, one may be able to observe a few examples of another type of Japanese mask worn — the animegao or “anime face.”

Animegao together with a costume is part of what is known as animegao kigurumi — a type of cosplay that involves a person wearing a mask and costume to represent various anime characters. What do they look like? Think sports or Disneyland mascots, only in this case, Japanese cartoon characters.

The term kirigumi is comprised of the Japanese verb kiru or “to wear,” and the noun nuigurumi, or stuffed toy. Kirigumi is the term used for any costumed performer, but it can also refer to the costume itself. Kigurumi characters are mostly female, however, there are also male, mechanical, elfin and demonic ones. Some cosplayer hobbyists even create their own characters and costumes. To transform into a human type of anime character, cosplayers wear a full, flesh colored bodysuit, called a zentai, the costume and the mask. Not just an average Halloween mask, these masks may cost hundreds of dollars or more and are made by specialists who use materials such as clay or fiber reinforced plastic (FRP). Once the mask and costume are donned, it is the challenge of the performer to portray the character using only body movement and gestures without talking. Animegao kigurimi hobbyists/performers may be seen at various anime/comic conventions not only in Japan, but also around the world including Canada and the United States.

From traditional to modern, dance and theater, guardian, warrior and anime character, masks have always occupied a significant place in Japanese history and culture. And although events such as Shintö festivals, Tökyö Comic Con and the Tökyö Mask Festival occur just once a year, masks can be seen just about anywhere. One does not need to wait for Halloween

Stacy Lee is a writing tutor and an Asian history teacher at Punahou Summer School. She is a lifelong Japanophile and devotee of author Natsume Söseki. Her years of living, studying and working in Japan have taken her from urban Tökyö to a traditional onsen inn in Kanazawa and made her an avowed fan of all types of Japanese cuisine.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here