Japanese Masks History and Significance

By | April 10, 2021


Japan’s oldest existing masks are those used in gigaku, an ancient dance that according to legend arrived in Japan from Korea in the 7th century. The dance was mimes and processionals that were in the form of a drama that settled on music. The gigaku mask covered the entire head and was usually made of wood. They had dramatic expressions cut out on their faces. Many of the masks had hair pasted on them, and they could represent a lion, bird, demon or superhuman being.


Bugaku masks were used as part of performances in traditional court music. The Bugaku performances were at the height of their popularity in the 9th century. The first Bagaku masks were very naturalized but became more elaborate over time. The Bugaku masks were traditionally made of cypress wood and only covered the artist’s face. The expressions were not as exaggerated as in the gigacustyle.


The Gyodo mask was used around 792 to 1185 and was used in Buddhist processions at various events, such as the dedication to a new temple. The masks were designed to represent various Buddhist figures, including gods, deities and demons. They were oversized and covered the entire face and more.


The Noh mask was part of the highly stylized Noh theater that began before the 15th century in Japan. The masks are designed to change expression based on light and shadows, and about 80 different masks were necessary for a performance. Other masks can also be used. The Noh masks, carved from wood, are smaller than the actor’s face and have very small holes through which the actor can see.


Kyogen masks are similar to noh masks, except less serious. masks carry smooth expressions or are extremely distorted. Kyogen is a type of comedy, and all masks are designed to elicit laughter from the audience. While masks for a single performance can be counted in the hundreds, there are only 20 different types of masks in a Kyogen performance. As with many other cultures, masks have been used in Japanese culture since ancient times for the purpose of ritual and performance. The masks represented humans, heroes, gods, devils, ghosts or animals. Archaeological evidence indicates that masks have been used in Japan for as long as 10,000 BC The earliest masks were made of clay or cloth. Their purposes probably included use in magical rituals, religious dances, shamanistic ceremonies, medical treatments, funerals, and as talismans.