Japanese Masks

Japanese noh mask

Japanese masks are part of very old Japanese theatrical traditions and rituals. These traditions live on today as people wear the masks and recreate ancient dances, plays, and music for festivals and parades.

Types of Japanese Masks

The earliest Japanese masks date back to 10,000 B.C. The first masks were made of clay and cloth and later were carved from wood. In the Japanese culture, like many other cultures, masks are used to transform a person so they can play another role in a ritual or a performance. There are many different types of masks in Japan, which are used to represent people, heroes, devils, animals, or deity. Most of the authentic antique masks are found in museums or passed down from family to family and are no longer available on the market. If you see a Japanese mask out of a museum it is most likely a replica.

Noh and Kyogen

When we think of a Japanese mask we are probably envisioning the noh or the kyogen mask. Both the noh and kyogen masks are carved from very thin wood and painted with white enamel. When an actor is wearing the mask it looks as if it is simply makeup painted on their face. There are at least 80 different types of koh masks used in one performance. Originally the play was dramatic, but after many years the drama dance evolved into more of a comedy as it surged in popularity in the 13th century. The noh masks are famous because they appear to change emotions because they are carved and painted in such a way that as the stage lights change, the expression on the face changes. These masks are still used today in performances.


The gigaku masks are some of the oldest existing masks used in dramatic dances dating back to the 7th century. The dramatic dance was performed to the music of flutes, drums, and cymbals. Over one hundred of these masks were located in the Todaiji Temple along with written music and stories, but no description of the actual dance. The masks are painted with black lacquer and designed in styles of lions, bird beaked creatures, demons, and super humans. Some of the masks had human hair glued on them. These masks usually covered the entire face including the back of the skull and ears.


Between 792 and 1185 B.C. bugaku music was performed in royal courts. The bugaku mask was worn during performances of this type of music. The masks are made of cypress wood and cover just the face and not the ears. The look of the mask resembles Buddha statues and a few of the ancient masks are signed by the original Buddha statue carvers. These masks are shaped to fit the size of a human face.


Gyodo masks were worn during Buddhist processional marches to dedicate a new temple. The masks are carved to represent specific Buddhist figures. Gyodo masks are larger than the than the human face, suggesting deity or superhuman powers.


The hannya mask represents a jealous woman who has turned into a demon. The mask is usually painted in a metallic paint with horns, fangs, and wild eyes.


The most popular demon masks are shikami. They have a large furrowed brow, snarling mouth with golden fangs. They are usually painted in reddish hues to show anger.


The history of Japanese masks is fascinating. Reproductions of some of these masks are available as souvenirs in temples throughout Japan. Some Internet sites also offer replicas of Japanese masks, so be sure to do a search if you're interested in learning more about the history and styles available.

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Japanese Masks