Masks in Japanese Lore

One of the greatest fascinations humans have is that of a person’s personality.  How can people whose DNA is so close act so differently from one another?  How is it that in a set of twins, one can be a social butterfly and the other has panic attacks in large crowds?  It is because of this fascination that humans have also developed a fascination in masks.  In many cultures both ancient and modern, masks symbolize the idea of another identity.  If someone puts on a mask, then they would take on that identity.  In ancient Japanese culture, spirits are represented by masks and certain theatre masks hold huge religious significance.  In Western culture, Greek theater is at the root of many traditional images associated with masks, and death takes on a whole new meaning with both death masks and the black plague.  Masks have evolved over time from traditionally religious items to appearing in pop culture like movies, video games, TV shows, and Halloween.  Yet, while the appearances have evolved, from traditional religious masks to scary Halloween masks, the folk lore remains the same.  A mask represents a persona that is different from one’s own and by putting on that mask, one can take on that persona.

Two ancient Japanese spirits are associated with masks.  The first, known as Tengu, appear as humans with black crow wings and always wear bright red masks with long noses.  For a long time it was believed that these winged spirits would kidnap children (Tengu, 2013).  In modern day, it is believed that they punish the vain and arrogant samurai and Buddhist priests.  They also dislike people who disrespect the Dharma law and braggarts (Tengu, 2013).  The second spirit in Japanese folklore that is characterized by its mask is the Oni.  In English, its name roughly translates to ogre and, like its Western counterpart, it is a cruel and vicious creature.  The masks that depict it are usually horned and tend to have exceedingly terrifying expressions (Japanese Folklore, 2013).  Story tellers will use these masks to terrify young children and help convey the terror of these beasts.  Both of these masks are used in festivals to depict their specific creature and take on their attributes.  The masks allow the performers to take on the persona of the creature they represent and convey that personality to their audience.

Japanese theater, much like ancient Greek Theatre, uses masks in their plays to depict different characters and emotions.  These masks are called Noh masks and throughout history, the traditional sixty designs has grown to over 200 in modern day (The Noh, 2013).  Many actors who use Noh masks believe that the mask has a special spiritual power about them that allows the actor to take on another’s personality.  While preparing to perform a play, the actor chooses from many different masks, and while the director might make suggestions, it is always the actor who has a final say in which mask they are going to use (The Noh, 2013).  Historically, the Noh masks were used religiously and did not begin to be used widely in plays until about the Muromachi period which took place between 1392 and 1573.  During this time, Noh masks became less religious and started gaining more human features.  The actors used the beauty of the Noh masks to hide the unattractive parts of their own faces (The Noh, 2013).  Noh masks are considered so sacred by the actors, that they are passed down through the generations and there are even traditions concerning the donning of a Noh mask.  The actor must go into the kagami no ma, the mirror room, and put on the mask.  The tradition is so strong that the Japanese do not use their word for putting on clothes to describe the act of putting on the Noh mask, but rather their word for attach.  In this way, the actor is becoming the mask and taking on the persona it represents (The Noh, 2013).





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