TITLE: Kyōgen Usobuki
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Usobuki Kyodomen Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Kyōgen Dance Drama
AGE: Unknown
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: horsehair; paint; lacquer

Kyōgen is a popular form of Japanese theater. It was traditionally used in village plays and developed alongside Noh theater, where it was performed at intermissions.  Unlike Noh, which tends to have serious themes, the kyōgen generally takes the form of comedic plays.

The usobuki (sometimes transliterated usofuki) (“air blower”) is a comical character who appears to be blowing mightily. It is commonly thought to derive from a folk story about a boy named Hyottoko, who could produce gold from his belly button.  It is used in different plays to represent a wide variety of roles, including a sinner on his way to the underworld, a scarecrow, insect spirits, and even plant spirits.


To watch a short documentary about Japanese Nogaku (Noh drama and Kyogen plays), click above.

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TITLE: Menburyu Hannya Mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Saga Prefecture
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Hannya
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Menburyu (Furyu) Dance
AGE: early 2000s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; lacquer; brass; gold dust; horse hair

Menburyu is a form of Furyu, a is a sacred masked dance native to Saga Prefecture in the autumn to seek an abundant harvest. In modern Furyu, dancers are accompanied by brass gongs and taiko drums. The Menburyu form of Furyu is practiced primarily in the southwest region of the prefecture and features a Hannya, or female serpent who has become a demon through spite and jealousy. The origin of the dance is believed to be a military battle in which defending forces attacked an invader at night wearing demon masks, wigs, and loud music to frighten the enemy. Other forms of Menburyu feature the tentsuki mask, representing a half-with a drawing of a dragon. When a Furyu dancer wears a mask, he is considered to incarnate the Buddha.

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TITLE: Noh Hannya
TYPE: mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Gunma Prefecture
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Hannya Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Noh Theater
AGE: 1950s-60s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; brass; gold dust; lacquer; silk string

The Noh theater evolved from a combination of Chinese Nuo opera, popular village entertainment known as Sarugaku, and courtly Bugaku dance to become a uniquely Japanese form of high culture. Noh, or Nōgaku, probably first emerged as a distinct form of theater in the 14th century.  A wide variety of plays developed over the ensuing three hundred or so years, with masked characters playing an important role in most.  The masks require the actors to communicate through posture, body movement, and vocal control, whose perfection requires years of intense training.  Although the masks prevent the actor from using facial expression, the most expertly carved masks can be made to express different emotions at different angles, so that he actor can change facial expression by the tilting his head.

This specific mask represents Hannya, the soul of a female who has become a demon or ghost through jealousy or obsession. The mask is designed to look angry from straight ahead, but sorrowful when tilted downward. Only exceptionally skilled carvers are able to produce a Hannya with the ability to convey both malice and misery.  Light-skinned Hannya like this one denote aristocratic women; red masks indicate peasant women.  All such roles were traditionally played by men.

For more on Noh masks, see the excellent book by Michishige Udaka and Shuichi Yamagata, The Secrets of Noh Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International , 2010).


To watch a short documentary about Japanese Nogaku (Noh drama and Kyogen plays), click above.

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TITLE: Noh Ko-Jō
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Ko-Jō Kyo-Kei (Old Man) Mask
MAKER: Takiyama Ichiemon (Iso Tanba City, Hyogo, Japan, 1940- ) and Ohoshima Jyunji (Fukuchiyama City, Kyoto, Japan, 1930- )
CEREMONY: Noh Drama
AGE: 2011
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; horse hair; acrylic string

The Noh theater evolved from a combination of Chinese Nuo opera, popular village entertainment known as Sarugaku, and courtly Bugaku dance to become a uniquely Japanese form of high culture. Noh, or Nōgaku, probably first emerged as a distinct form of theater in the 14th century.  A wide variety of plays developed over the ensuing three hundred or so years, with masked characters playing an important role in most.  The masks require the actors to communicate through posture, body movement, and vocal control, whose perfection requires years of intense training.  Although the masks prevent the actor from using facial expression, the most expertly carved masks can be made to express different emotions at different angles, so that he actor can change facial expression by the tilting his head.

This mask is known as Ko-Jō (or Ko-Jyo) and is a kind of Jō-Kei (old man mask) created by the famed carver Koushi Kiyomitsu in the late 14th century. This specimen was acquired from Inoue Corporation of Kyoto.

For more on Noh masks, see the excellent book by Michishige Udaka and Shuichi Yamagata, The Secrets of Noh Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International , 2010).


To watch a short documentary about Japanese Nogaku (Noh drama and Kyogen plays), click above.

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TITLE: Noh Ko-Omote
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Ko-Omote Onna-Men Mask
MAKER: Unknown maker in Gunma Prefecture
CEREMONY: Noh Theater
AGE: 1950s-60s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; lacquer; silk string

The Noh theater evolved from a combination of Chinese Nuo opera, popular village entertainment known as Sarugaku, and courtly Bugaku dance to become a uniquely Japanese form of high culture. Noh, or Nōgaku, probably first emerged as a distinct form of theater in the 14th century.  A wide variety of plays developed over the ensuing three hundred or so years, with masked characters playing an important role in most.  The masks require the actors to communicate through posture, body movement, and vocal control, whose perfection requires years of intense training.  Although the masks prevent the actor from using facial expression, the most expertly carved masks can be made to express different emotions at different angles, so that he actor can change facial expression by the tilting his head.

This specific mask represents Ko-Omote, the naive young girl. Noh theater has many types of Onna-men (female masks), often with subtle variations in expression.  The Ko-Omote is probably the best known. Such roles were traditionally played by men.

For more on Noh masks, see the excellent book by Michishige Udaka and Shuichi Yamagata, The Secrets of Noh Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International , 2010).


To watch a short documentary about Japanese Nogaku (Noh drama and Kyogen plays), click above.

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TITLE: Noh Okasshiki
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Okasshiki Mask
MAKER: Takiyama Ichiemon (Iso Tanba City, Hyogo, Japan, 1940- )
CEREMONY: Noh Drama
AGE: 2013
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; lacquer; acrylic string

The Noh theater evolved from a combination of Chinese Nuo opera, popular village entertainment known as Sarugaku, and courtly Bugaku dance to become a uniquely Japanese form of high culture. Noh, or Nōgaku, probably first emerged as a distinct form of theater in the 14th century.  A wide variety of plays developed over the ensuing three hundred or so years, with masked characters playing an important role in most.  The masks require the actors to communicate through posture, body movement, and vocal control, whose perfection requires years of intense training.  Although the masks prevent the actor from using facial expression, the most expertly carved masks can be made to express different emotions at different angles, so that he actor can change facial expression by the tilting his head.

This mask is known as Okasshiki (or simply Kasshiki) and represents a young Zen Buddhist lay monk, whose role is announcing the day’s menu in the monastery dining room. He is easily recognized by his ginkgo leaf-shaped bangs. This specimen was acquired from Inoue Corporation of Kyoto.

For more on Noh masks, see the excellent book by Michishige Udaka and Shuichi Yamagata, The Secrets of Noh Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International , 2010).


To watch a short documentary about Japanese Nogaku (Noh drama and Kyogen plays), click above.

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TITLE: Noh Zaoh
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Zaoh Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Noh Drama
AGE: early 2000s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint

The Noh theater evolved from a combination of Chinese Nuo opera, popular village entertainment known as Sarugaku, and courtly Bugaku dance to become a uniquely Japanese form of high culture. Noh, or Nōgaku, probably first emerged as a distinct form of theater in the 14th century.  A wide variety of plays developed over the ensuing three hundred or so years, with masked characters playing an important role in most.  The masks require the actors to communicate through posture, body movement, and vocal control, whose perfection requires years of intense training.  Although the masks prevent the actor from using facial expression, the most expertly carved masks can be made to express different emotions at different angles, so that he actor can change facial expression by the tilting his head.

This mask is known as Zaoh and represents a Buddhist saint named Kongo Zaoh Gon Gen. He became enlightened after practicing asceticism for 1000 days atop Mount Kinpo.

For more on Noh masks, see the excellent book by Michishige Udaka and Shuichi Yamagata, The Secrets of Noh Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International , 2010).


To watch a short documentary about Japanese Nogaku (Noh drama and Kyogen plays), click above.

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TITLE: Ondeko Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Sado Island
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Oni-daiko
MAKER: Ohoshima Jyunji (Fukuchiyama City, Kyoto, Japan, 1930- )
CEREMONY: Ondeko Dance
AGE: 2013
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; cashew tree lacquer; brass; gold dust; cloth; Velcro straps; horse hair

Ondeko, also known as Oni-daiko, is a demon character that performs solely on Japan’s Sado Island. The masquerader dances vigorously to the music of flutes drums in order to drive away evil spirits and to ensure a good harvest. It probably originates in Buddhist dances from the eight or ninth century C.E., although its precise origin is contested. The configuration of the performance varies across Sado Island.  In the central part of the island, the demons are either black or white and dance with two lions, suggesting a tie to China’s Tang Lion Dance.  In the southern part of the island, two demons always dance together. In the north, the dancers include an old man (Mamemaki) who scatters beans from a wooden box for good luck.

This specimen was acquired from Inoue Corporation of Kyoto.

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TITLE: Shishi Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Kantō
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Lion Dance (Shishi Mai) Mask (Gashira)
MAKER: Unknown maker in Gunma Prefecture
CEREMONY: Shishi Mai
AGE: 1940s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; lacquer

The shishi mask represents a mythical lion that protects and purifies the region in which it dances, driving away evil spirits, famine, and disease. The shishi mai (lion dance) is performed throughout Japan on festival days, especially during the lunar new year and Buddha’s birthday. Its appearance varies in different villages, with the lion style (like this mask) predominating, but other animals, such as a deer, cow, or mythical kirin, used in certain villages. The lion is accompanied by a retinue of drummers playing the taiko drum, as it walks through the town, dancing and bestowing blessings on locals. To drive away evil spirits, the shishi bites the head of villagers, which brings good luck and health.

The lion dance originated in China and was brought to Japan by Chinese travelers around the early 16th century (Muromachi Period). As in China, the shishi can be danced by a sole performer or a group. In western Japan, the gigaku-kei style of shishi mai is performed by two or more dancers bundled into a long costume. In the Kantō and Tōhoku, the dance style is known as furyu-kei, and is performed by a single dancer, who beats a drum tied around his waist.

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TITLE: Tajikarao No-mikoto Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Miyazaki
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Tajikarao No-mikoto Mask
MAKER: Hiroaki Kudo (Amano Iwato, Takachiho, 1961- )
CEREMONY: Kagura
AGE: 2019
MAIN MATERIAL: hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint

Kagura is a form of music and dance from the Shinto religion. The Kagura involves maikata, or masked dancers with elaborate costumes and wigs, and hayashikata, or musicians playing the odaiko (large drum), kodaiko (small drum), chochigane (Japanese cymbals), and yokobue (a Japanese flute).

Kagura dance is not totally abstract, but rather is designed to tell a story, usually of Shinto origin.  The performance of a dance is intended not just to celebrate a holiday or entertain an audience, but as a religious duty to pray to Shinto gods for a good harvest or fish catch, or protection from disease or natural disaster. Kagura is now commonly performed at temples and in farming villages after the rice harvest to thank the gods for their bounty.

This mask represents the Shinto god Ameno Tajikarao No-mikoto, who created Mt. Togakushi by taking the solid rock door leading to a cave where the sun goddess Amaterasu had hid herself and throwing it toward Nagano.  Amaterasu had denied the world light by hiding in a cave after her godly sibling annoyed her, and Tajikarao, the god of strenght and sport, both restored the sun to the world and created a new mountain. The dance reenacts this heroic act.

For more on Japanese Kagura, see David Petersen, An Invitation to Kagura: Hidden Gem of the Traditional Japanese Performing Arts (2007).


Click above to watch a short documentary about the Kagura ceremony of Japan.

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