12 Top Traditional Japanese Masks and The Story Behind Them

The Japanese tradition is one of the oldest and fascinating cultures around the world. The Japanese are famous for their hard work, ethics, and values. The nation is renowned for its resilience and is known to rise every time, no matter how hard a calamity hits it. One of the most enthralling features of the country’s tradition is the Japanese masks.  

The practice of wearing a mask in Japan is ancient. Studies suggest the origin dates back to the Jomon Period (300 B.C.). Many popular local dance forms — such as the Shinto dance and Noh dance — and festivals require the performers to wear masks to represent creatures, humans, or demons. The art of crafting these has also influenced many face painting customs, especially Kabuki. Let’s dive deep into the culture and explore the iconic Japanese masks and the stories behind their craft. 

Top Japanese Masks –


Tengu is a famous mask inspired by the Shinto god with a protruding and bulbous nose and a grim expression. Interestingly, a Chinese version also exists, resembling the Shinto god, which is known as the Tiangou or the dog-demon.  

These expressive masks are typically crafted using papier mâché, wood, and plastic. In the present day, you would often find Tengus hung in households with the belief of frightening evil spirits and inviting good luck. These decorative pieces are also worn by theater performers to portray legends and stories.  

Tengu Masks, Awashima jinja shrine 2.jpg
By Motokoka, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link


Oni is one of the most famous traditional masks. The word Oni refers to red-faced and angry-looking demons with their iconic long sharp teeth. If you visit Japan during spring, you will often find people wearing Oni in the Setsubun festival, which is also known as the Bean-throwing festival.  

The story behind this is quite intriguing. Apparently, parents generally wear Oni at home to scare children who would throw beans at the “oni”. In turn, they would expel the demon and invite good luck in the house. In other words, this also means releasing bad luck and embracing good fortune. 

Oni (demon) mask


By now, most of you who are new to this concept must be thinking that why is everything revolving around either sadness or anger? Well, that’s not exactly the case. Meet the mask which is used to depict humor — Hyottoko. The story behind Hyottoko is fascinating. One of the most famous skills of this character is its ability to blow fire through a bamboo pipe. The comical features and the fire skills make Hyottoko a festival favorite. In fact, if you translate “Hyottoko” in Japanese, you will get “fireman.” 

There are several legends behind Hyottoko. In some parts, people believe he is the god of fire, while in others, he is believed to be a strange-looking boy who has the ability to produce gold through his belly button. Hence, it is common for households to use a Hyottoko to symbolize good luck and fortune.  

Hyottoko mask (3758464958).jpg
By yb_woodstock, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link


There are several fascinating stories about the enigmatic Japanese character, Kitsune, which means fox. However, Kitsune is not your regular Fox. According to the Shinto tales, Kitsune is the messenger of Inari, which is the god of agriculture, commerce, and fertility. However, one of the most common representations of kitsune is high intelligence and cunningness, which is not always considered as upstanding ethics in the local culture.  

In other local legends, Kitsune is viewed as a magical creature and shapeshifter. The story of Kitsune is so popular that you would often find masks, costumes, and souvenirs based on the ubiquitous fox.  

Kitsune (Fox) Mask


Kyogens are used to add comic relief in the severe and solemn sets of Noh theater. Kyogen is performed in the intermission of Noh sets. In its literal translation, it means comical drama. The Hyottoko features are also derived from this and resemble humorous themes. Another notable feature of Kyogen is that actors who wear these masks only perform non-human roles, contrary to Noh. 

Japan - Edo - Kyogen Mask - Daikoku God Luck


Another mask that revolves around the theme of excitement and joy is Okame, which depicts a cherub-faced lady. What’s even more surprising is that Okame is considered to be the wife of Hyottoko.  

Okame is also referred to as Otafuku, and this cheerful lady symbolizes good luck. In Japanese, Okame means tortoise, which is a symbol of long life, and Otafuku translates to good fortune. However, unlike Hyottoko, Okame is limited to a smaller region. In theaters, Okame is worn by dancers who perform silly steps to make their audience laugh and spread joy.  

Okame Mask 20051203.jpg
By +-, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link


This is one of the modern additions. As the name suggests, Animegao is inspired by anime and manga, which are among the biggest industries in modern Japan. These comical masks are a modern take on the traditional craft. You will often find them in stores and see young children and adults wearing them to showcase their love for their preferred characters.  

Anime North 2017 animegao c IMG 5076.jpg
By Nicholas Moreau, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link


Also known as Men-yoroi, Mempo is a broad umbrella term that illustrates the decorative and protective facial creatures born by ancient soldiers or as they are famously known as — samurai. 

These masks fundamentally had a purpose. Even today, if you take a close look at these, you will realize that mempo was designed to instill fear in the enemy. They were crafted using iron and leather, which also provided robust protection to the soldiers. 

Samurai Helmet


Until now, you have come across the term “Noh” a few times. Let’s finally decode what it is. In broader terms, Noh is a traditional Japanese musical drama performed during festivals where all the characters wear masks. Yes, whether male, female, child, old, or demon, everyone is depicted as wearing one.  

It is spellbinding that these masks are highly expressive, which makes them complex to design. You can guess the complexity by the fact that different angles alter the expression of the one playing the part. For example, you would feel the actor is showing anger from one angle, from another angle, you will see sorrow.  

Ko-omote character, Noh mask, early 1700s, seal reading 'Sojun' - George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum - DSC03533.JPG
By Daderot, CC0, Link


Have you heard about the famous Noh festival? It is an annual festival held at the Heian Jingu Shrine in Kyoto, where traditionally, women are not allowed to perform. However, Onnamen are worn by male performers to express stories of female characters. Yes, Onnamen depicts female faces.  

It is believed that every Onnamen mask is different, and each has a story of its own. To give you an idea, an omiona represents a working woman, whereas a shakumi represents a middle-aged woman.  

Periodo edo, maschera noh, tipo shakumi, XVII-XVIII sec.JPG
By I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link


Featuring one of the most famous Japanese symbols, Hannya is the jealous female demon. The popularity is so vast that it is also a common tattoo motif among youngsters today. The specialty of this mask is that it has a varying range of complex features, which are depicted depending on the angle of light. This is why she’s also one of the most famous figures in the theater.  

The art involved here also has a role to play with the colors depicting different stories, such as the white Hannya represents a refined individual, whereas a red one symbolizes the presence of evil. The darkest red, as you might have guessed, is for showcasing the evilest demons.  

Another fascinating fact is that an angry female face will be visible if an actor is directly looking at you. However, if the performer is looking down at the ground, the light creates illusions that make you feel as if the performer is crying.  

Hannya no mask-Ethno BHM 1946.266.4828-P6141137-gradient.jpg
By Rama, CC BY-SA 3.0 fr, Link


One of the most famous traits of the citizens of Japan is their excellent sense of discipline. So how does a mask contribute to this discipline? Unlike the others on the list, Namahage is worn by parents to teach obedience to the children and frighten children.  

This is very common in Oga village, located in Akita. Young men often don these masks to scare young brats into behaving. Namahage is often referred to as the mountain demon, and the tradition is so prevalent in Oga village that you would at least see one Namahage while walking down the street.  

By kanegen, CC BY 2.0, Link

That concludes our list of the top 12 masks and the stories behind them. Isn’t it fascinating how the Japanese have immortalized their ancient craft even though it is more than a thousand years old? People still enjoy the art and its modern blend with the new stories. You would also see the collaboration of traditional Japanese masks efficiently depicting modern stories.

From interesting creatures to demons and spirits — these have a wide range when it comes to depiction. It gets even more exciting when you realize that wearing a mask hides the face and, therefore, the audience cannot see the real facial expressions. However, it is the skill of the performer where they use these different iconic masks for storytelling. Let us know which one of the above masks and its origin story captivated you the most.