All About Japanese Masks

Japanese Mask

image: Grahn [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

There is magic in a mask. They have held a timeless mystery for humans across geography and history.

Their power is in their ability to make it possible for a human to take on a new identity; to transform. 

I’ve had the opportunity to take part in several festivals in Japan over the years, some of which have included masks. It has struck me that the mask, and to a lesser extent all ritual dress, has the ability to momentarily collapse the social class system. In the masked dance, the financial executive is as unknown as the laborer. In this way a mask really is magical. In that moment, you can be anyone.

Japan has a rich folklore filled with fantastic creatures transforming and shapeshifting. Which came first, was it the love the mask or the love of the idea of transformation?

Only the sly fox knows. 

What Types of Japanese Face Masks are there and what do they mean?

Largely, we can divide Japanese masks into two categories; masks used for performance and masks used in festivals. Broadly, performance masks are associated with the ruling classes of society and more secular occasions and the festival masks are associated with common people and more rituals. The ideas of “secular” and “religious” tend to blend in Japan, so this is really an arbitrary means to simplify the situation. Spirituality is a deep soup that spills easily.

Performance Masks

Noh Theatre has a history that goes back to at least the 12th or 13th century. The term “Noh” Theatre itself is relatively new and was only used from the Meiji period in the late 1800s. Until then it was sarugaku, which roughly translates as “Monkey Amusement”. There are other influencing art forms such as Sangaku  that go back to the period of Chinese cultural influence around the 6th century.

For my part, I had a short experience learning some of the fundamentals of Noh for a semester as a student at the Kyoto City University of the Arts. A member of the Kongo house of Noh in Kyoto taught us how to intone in various strange guttural incantations.

Noh Masks

Really there are as many types of masks in Noh as there are Noh plays. They get categorised in a few different ways. One method divides them into seven types, which we will use here.

Okina 翁

Okina style mask

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/norio_nomura/

Okina, comes from an old Japanese word for an old man. Usually an Okina mask has a relatively calm expression. The mask features distinctive bushy eyebrows. It is in two parts with a separated jaw. It is also referred to as kami no men 神の面 meaning “mask of god” and is considered sacred.


Refers to all old men characters other than Okina. Jou can be hard to distinguish from Okina, but is associated with the human face of an old man, distinct from the God-like status of Okina. Although, even this distinction is blurred as the Jyo can be called “Kojyo” 小尉, which is also a manifestation of a god in human form. The jyo can also express the melancholy side of the human condition.

Onikami 鬼神

Kakidai [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Oni means a demon and kami means a god. There are various demons and gods which appear in Noh Theatre, such as Fudo Myoou 不動明王. A lot of these masks don’t look friendly and can represent the dead, or souls in hell. They can also be calmer more enlightened beings.

Otoko 男

Daderot [Public domain]

Otoko is a modern one simply meaning “man” in Japanese. These masks include the normal manly culprits including military ranking officials and middle aged men of honour such as this Chujo 中将. These masks can sometimes have something of a pensive expression.

Onna 女

Daderot [CC0]

Perhaps saying something interesting about the place of women in traditional Japanese society, the onna or female mask generally expresses a neutral expression. For this reason, it is said that the mask is able to express a variety of emotions depending on the movements of the actor. 

Strikingly to Western eyes, the eyebrows are very high up on the forehead. This is not an artistic license taken by mask makers. It was common practice for hundreds of years for women in Japan to shave off their eyebrows and then draw them on again as light shaded patches high up on the forehead in the practice of hikimayu 引眉. One theory to why this is is that real eyebrows got in the way when women started painting their faces white. 

You’ll also notice that the teeth are black. Once again, this is a true depiction of life, where Japanese women often painted their teeth black, called ohaguro お歯黒, both for aesthetic and dental reasons. 

Onryo 怨霊
Hanya Mask

These fear inducing masks represent jealous, vengeful and pained spirits. Most famous of these is the Hanya 般若 mask, which represents a female spirit with who is full at spite, often for being wronged by someone or something. Interestingly, Hanya is a translation of the Sanskrit word of Prajna, used in buddhism to denote “wisdom”. Why the word has come to be used for a crazed vengeful spirit is not 100% clear. One theory is that there was a buddhist priest who used the name Hanya who first created these scary masks. Another theory is that a character in the famous Japanese classical text, , a character got rid of an evil spirit by reciting a Hanya buddhist text. 

Ritual Masks

Namahage なまはげ

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Akira_Kouchiyama

Namahage events take place all around the Oga Peninsula in Japan, especially around the New Year’s period. The main thing to note about these masks is that a Namahage is not an Oni  or a demon. He’s a good guy! Though looking fierce, and to the untrained eye as demonic, a namahage is actually a fortuitous messenger of Godly character. 

Masks can be found that are particular to each district and the entire namahage tradition was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage item in 2014. 

Hyottoko ひょっとこ

I first encountered this funny fella in a local festival on the Southern Island of Kyushu. I put on the mask and the little troupe I was part of showed me how you do the Hyottoko by thrusting out your hips in a vulgar jerking motion. Actually, everything about the Hyottoko character is vulgar. That’s the point. He is a classic buffoon. Eyes dishevelled, mouth twisted, wearing a spotted hanky around his face. One theory behind his name is that the word is an evolution of hi, meaning fire, and otoko, meaning man. The story goes that his mouth twisted and pointed like that because he is blowing on a flame, and that he is wearing the hanky to stop himself from getting burnt. He is a working man.

He is considered a bringer of good fortune. And why wouldn’t he be, a salt-of-the-earth, larrikin, wise guy, not afraid to make himself the butt of the joke for his comrade’s amusement. He reminds us, especially at times of festival and merry-making, that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.

Okame おかめ

Often forming a pair with her pal Hyottoko is Okame. She’s a voluptuous, plump-cheeked maiden, ever smiling and endlessly benevolent. Okame means turtle in Japanese and there is a theory that her chubby face looks like the shelled water-reptile. Turtles are also, along with Cranes, considered to be one of the most luck-bringing animal totems in Japan. Okame’s other numerous names include Otafuku, which may come from the words ta, or greatly, and fuku, which can be taken as a word to refer to all things good including fortune, wealth and health. In ancient times, a chubby woman was considered to be a lucky charm that could ward off disease and evil spirits. Fat was beautiful. As perceptions of beauty have changed over time, words such as Otafuku have sadly sometimes come to be used to as insults to women. Our original Okame remains perpetually unfaised though. She just keeps smiling and puffing out her cheeks and dancing graciously.

Fox kitsune 狐

The Kitsune fox is the classic shape shifter of Japanese folk-lore. Foxes can turn into humans to make mischief. They are often seen outside Shinto shrines. They occupy a moral space that is ambiguous, sometimes being seen as totem of reverence and other times one to be feared. In this way they mirror the ambiguities of the nature of another creature prone to ethical transformation, the humble human.

REVIEWS: Best Japanese Masks To Buy Online

Best Masks For Wearing

Hyottoko Mask

This is the most popular character for festivals across Japan. Put this on and ignite your inner goof.


Classic, instantly recognisable Hyottoko design

Handmade – each one is it’s individual piece

Paper mache – not plastic


No hole in mouth – so may need to pierce to breathe

Eye holes quite small

Okame Mask

This is the most popular woman’s character for Japanese Festivals. She’s convivial, she’s well fed, she’s got shaved eyebrows. What’s not to love?


Classic, instantly recognisable Okame design

Handmade – each one is it’s individual piece

Paper mache – not plastic


No hole in mouth – so may need to pierce to breathe

Eye holes quite small

Blue Kitsune Fox Mask

The famous shape shifter of Japanese folklore. 


Instantly recognisable kitsune design
Backing strap for wearing


No hole in mouth – so may need to pierce to breathe

Red color is more instantly recognisable for kitsune

LED Lighted Kitsune Fox

The famous shape shifter gets a disco twist! 


What can we say? It LIGHTS UP!

Covers half the face, leaving mouth to breathe

Large eye holes

Three flashing modes

Runs for 10-15 hours



Doesn’t cover whole face

Battery pack may be too bulky for some

Red Demon Oni Airsoft Mask

If you really want to scare people, this modern twist on a Japanese folk demon is the limousine of masks.


“Strong as a hockey mask” fibreglass construction

Eye protection in black steel mesh makes the mask good for shooting games

Flexible foam inside moulds to face

One size fits all


Eye mesh may decrease visibility

Fairly Heavy

Custom Made Kitsune Fox on Etsy


Totally home made to order

Individual craftsmanship

Three way, thick strap holds securely on head

Padding inside


Relatively expensive

6-8 week order time

Backing strap for wearing

Best Japanese Masks For Display Purposes

Hyottoko Display Mask

The wacky folk-fellow of Japanese festive cheer. How could you take yourself too seriously with this rube hanging around?


Mounted on wooden board

Ceramic item

Can be bought as a set with Okame


Hanging string not hidden behind hanging board

Okame Display Mask

The chubby lady of the many a Japanese festival fame. Her puffy cheeks are good luck, and who doesn’t need a bit more of that in their life?


Mounted on wooden board

Ceramic item

Can be bought as a set with Hyottoko


Hanging string not hidden behind hanging board

Noh-Style Woman’s face Mask

Reminiscent of a Noh mask, but more brightly colorful


Mounted on wooden board

Ceramic item

Can be bought as a set with Hyottoko & Okame


Hanging string not hidden behind hanging board

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