The Japanese Culture of Artistic Masks

The History of Japanese Cultural Masks

Japanese cultural masks are one of the most interesting parts of Japan’s art and culture. These were traditionally used in rituals, festivals, and theatre and were used to represent mythical characters and beings from legendary tales. These masks often represent demons, spirits, ghosts, and otherworldly creatures. Sometimes, the characters represented by the mask is that of an animal or even a person.


In theatre, masks usually have loud colors and design. These have different faces used to represent different characters. The more elaborate the design, the more magical or fantastic the character. For instance, women were not allowed on stage traditionally. Because of this, there are special masks with soft features used by actors to portray women. Those masks, on the other hand, which has elaborate designs and color usually represent gods and other beings with magical powers.

Some masks are used for rituals and festivals as a part of ceremonial activities. Oftentimes, they represent spirits, gods, and other powerful beings. These are used to either tell stories or to portray scenes from legendary tales. For instance, the omi mask is a common sight during the Setsubun or bean throwing festival in Japan. The story of the omi (or demon) teaches important lessons to young children.

During the earlier times, these traditional masks are made with organic and natural materials. Old masks were made of porcelain, clay, cloth, wood, and even paper. They are painted with lacquer to ensure that the quality and color will last a long time. Nowadays, it is more common to see masks made from synthetic materials like plastic and rubber. This disparity in the raw ingredients makes well-preserved traditional masks pretty collectible and expensive. In fact, many museums all over the world have exhibits of many traditional Japanese masks.

Different kinds of Japanese Face Masks

Mempo: Samurai Masks

Also known as Men-gu or Men-yoroi, this kind of mask is like a helmet or facial armor that samurais use while in battle. These consist of different layers of material that usually completely covers the face. It is a way to ensure that parts of the head are protected from possible blows and it also serves as a means of putting the helmet securely in the head. Another purpose of the mempo is to scare the enemies away with the masks’ terrifying facial expressions.

The mempo is usually made from a combination of cloth and leather. Others are completely made from iron to provide additional protection (like a shield or armor).  It is designed to have mustaches, scary growling faces, and even a detachable nose. Different facial masks are designed with different facial expressions. Special masks also have chin and neck protection, this is collectively known as the throat guard. There is also a sweat drain in the entire ensemble to allow ventilation for the wearer. 

Traditional Character Masks

Tengu Mask

This is probably the most common traditional mask that can be seen in Japan. The Tengu is a type of mythical being which is considered as a Shinto god. Originally, the tengu is thought to cause bad luck in humans. However, the image of the tengu is now known as the protector. Generally, it is believed to be protectors of sacred places. This is why it is common to see these masks in religious rituals or even as a decorative piece in business establishments and temples.  


There are actually two kinds of Tengu Masks, one is the daitengu and the other is the kotengu. The daitengu is a red-faced demon characterized by a terrifyingly angry face, a long nose, pointed ears, and bright yellow eyes. He has a scowl made with sharp teeth. This is probably the most common image of the tengu which is familiar in the west. He is known to cause disasters, and wars in the world. He is often known to abduct humans and cause them suffering.

The kotengu, on the other hand, is a dark-faced mask which is less common than the daitengu. The kotengu’s image is that of a crow, with a large black beak and beady eyes. This means that the tengu can take the form of a ‘bird of prey’. Compared to the daitengu, the kotengu is known to protect human society. Although it is the original form of the tengu, it is lesser known than the goblin-faced tengu.

Kappa Mask

Unlike the Tengu, there are many images available for the Kappa depending on a district or province’s interpretation of what it is. The Kappa is known as a river monster, or a river spirit (kami). Because of its place of origin, it is often depicted as a snake, a dragon, an eel, or even a fish. This is why Kappa masks vary depending on location.

This kind of mask is usually used I the Kagura festival, which features a theatrical dance showing a world with mortals and gods together. This particular festival is believed to be much older than the Noh theatre and is considered as one of the most incredible forms of dance in Japan.

What is interesting is that the Kappa, in mythology, is as small as a young boy who has scaly skin and webbed hands and feet. He has incredible powers and can drink the blood of any living soul. Later on, he was romanticized as a simple spirit who attacks swimmers in the river. This particular spirit will then challenge these swimmers into a wrestling match in exchange for something. If the Kappa loses, it is known that it will keep its promise.

Kitsune Mask

Also known as the fox mask, this is one of the most familiar images for people living outside of Japan and unfamiliar with the culture. This is due to the fact that it is featured in many animated series and is even considered as special items in some games. The Kitsune mask is known to be a famous Noh mask and is usually a part of the Kyogen performances. These are short interlude shows which are performed during intermission in between acts.

What is interesting about the Kitsune is that in the Japanese culture it is known to have odd behaviors which can turn from malevolent to benevolent and back real quick. There are different kitsune masks depending on the occasion, story, or show. These include the Hahakitsune (or mother fox), the Ryuko (or dragon fox), water fox, tenko (sky fox), and the Kinko (gold fox). These different kinds of foxes have different roles for the Shinto religion. It is believed that gods, or spirits, sometimes take one of these fox’s forms.

Partnered Masks

Hyottoko Mask and the Okame

Both the Hyottoko and Okame mask are a few of the traditional masks which are designed as a person. The Hyottoko is a comical character based on a myth originating from the Iwate prefecture. According to the story, a young boy with a bizarre looking face has the ability to make gold. Because of this, masks made from the likeness of his face are placed inside homes and is believed to bring good fortune.

The Hyottoko mask, when used in theatre, often represents clowns or comical characters. The face of the Hyottoko mask has two large, bulging eyes which are sometimes represented as not symmetrical in size. The mouth is puckered to one side in an awkward and funny manner. Also, it is common to see these masks have scarves around the head.

On the other hand, the Okame is like the female version of the Hyottoko. This is that of a face of an old lady, with rounded cheeks, small eyes, smiling lips, and dimples on the chin. The okame is known to bring good fortune and luck. This is why it is common to see an okame mask in business establishments and houses. What is interesting, on the other hand, is that there is no specific background to this mask, unlike the Hyottoko.

Oni Masks and the Hannya

The Oni is a commonly known demon in Japan. He is characterized by a dark red face, two horns at the side of the head, sharp teeth, and yellow eyes. According to folktales, the Oni is an invisible spirit known to cause a bad fortune, disasters, war, and disease. They take the form of an ogre or a goblin.

Nowadays, the image of the oni is not as scary anymore because of its importance in the setsubun celebrations in Japan. From a terrifying demon-like creature, it has transformed into a cartoon-like villain sent out to hunt naughty children. If the roasted soybean is thrown out of the door, the oni demon will eat them, be satisfied, and set off on its way.

There is also a female version of the oni known as the Hannya. The difference is that the Hannya is not a spirit or a god. Based on legends, the Hannya is a woman who transformed into a demon-like creature because she was overtaken by jealousy. However, in religion, the Hannya is a representation of wisdom. These Hannya images usually have terrifying, ugly faces with two long horns at the sides of the head. It is believed that the Hannya can perform dark magic and perform evil acts on others.

Performance Masks

Gigaku Mask

This kind of mask is known to be the oldest in all of Japan. it was used in a dance performance which has died out in the recent centuries. Gigaku masks take different forms like superhuman, animals, and even spirits. What makes this special is that it is often made out of wood, unlike other masks which are made from paper, clay, or porcelain. This kind of mask is considered an art because of the way each detail was carved out of wood.


Kabuki Masks

The Kabuki is a form of classical theatre performance which is a form of dance drama. Usual plotlines of Kabuki performances include legendary myths, folklore, and stories in Japan. This involves magical creatures, gods, spirits, and ordinary people. Special performances are performed depending on the time of the year.

These kinds of performances involve impressive costumes, makeup, masks, and more. It is accompanied by traditional Japanese music. More modern performances include more makeup and fewer masks. The masks were used at a time when women were portrayed by male actors. Kabuki performances, remain one of the most impressive theatrical performances in all of Japan’s culture.

There are different styles and costumes to represent summer months like June, July, and August. There are also more colorful masks and makeups during the spring months of March, April, and May. To represent much darker months of fall (September, October, November), there are many somber colors. Lastly, elegant colors are used to represent winter months of December, January, and February.

The Modern Japanese culture (and fashion) of Surgical Masks

In the centuries that followed, the tradition of wearing extravagant masks in Japan has taken an interesting turn. Particularly, the trend of wearing colorful wooden and porcelain masks has transformed itself to surgical masks. Many people are actually curious about this modern-day fashion trend in Japan.

One of the most common, and obvious, reason for people in Japan to wear masks as part of an everyday attire is protection from illnesses like the flu, hay fever, and more. Day in day out individuals meet different kinds of people in public (especially in large cities like Tokyo where it is always crowded) and it is unknown if a contagious disease is hanging about. Also as a means of protection from pollution, wearing surgical masks have become a trend. It is also common to see employees in food establishments wearing masks as a sanitary provision to avoid spit going to food being served to a long line of hungry customers.

One interesting reason for people to wear surgical masks in public is the lack of time to wear make-up. Not many people are confident to go out in public bare-faced, this is why some Japanese women (or girls) prefer to go out in masks than be late for work or class.