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What Is a Hannya Mask?

A Hannya mask embodies a tormented female demon from Japanese Noh theater, symbolizing complex emotions of jealousy and sorrow. Its haunting visage, with sharp horns and a fierce expression, captures the transformative power of rage. Intrigued by how this ancient artifact reflects human psyche? Dive deeper to unravel the mysteries behind the Hannya's enigmatic scowl. What secrets does it hold for you?
Mark Wollacott
Mark Wollacott

A hannya mask is a type of Japanese mask used in Noh theatre. The mask is recognizable by its twin-horned and angry visage. It is used to represent the tortured spirits of women wronged by their husbands and not, contrary to popular opinion, demons. The masks are used in plays such as Aoi no Ue, Dojoji, and Momijigari. They have also become the inspiration for tattoos known as a hannya tattoo.

Noh is a type of classical Japanese theatre that incorporates traditional plays, music and lavish costumes. The art form originates from the Muromachi Period of Japanese history and is regulated by the Iemoto code. This means that most Noh plays come from a list of regular plays and are performed according to the code’s rules. A typical Noh performance includes between two and five Noh plays. Each play is separated from the next by a short comical performance known as a Kyogen.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

All actors in a Noh play are male and wear masks to represent each character. During the Muromachi period, there were approximately 80 masks, but by the end of the 20th century, there were over 200 types. These masks are divided into six broad categories: elders, old men, males, females, demons (kishin), and ghosts/spirits (onryo).

The hannya mask is a type of onryo mask. There are many types of onryo masks including ayakeshi, yamamba, and yase-otoko. While onryo masks can represent both genders, the hannya mask is solely for female characters who have been wronged by their loved one or husband. Hannya are considered by many to be the most recognizable of Noh masks.

Each hannya mask is carved out of a block of wood or is made using materials such as lacquer, cloth, clay or paper. Papier-mâché makes a cheaper alternative to the expensive traditional masks for events such as teaching activities or costume parties. Artisans who have been making such masks for generations make most masks used in Noh plays. This means that many hannya masks are passed from generation to generation much in the same way as actors inherit the stage names of their predecessors or mentors.

A wooden hannya mask is first carved out of the block of wood in a rough form, and then it is carved more precisely. The mask is designed so that it is smaller than the actor’s face because it is considered good in Japan for the actor’s chin to be visible. Once the artist is happy with the shape, he or she then prepares the inside of the mask by first burning it and then plastering it. The artist then applies layers of paint, polishing and extras such as gold dust to the face side of the mask.

Hanging a hannya mask, like any other Noh mask, is an important ritual in itself. The mask is the last part of the costume to be put on. Once clothed the actor goes into a mirror room where he faces the mask. The mask is then hung on the actor. In Japanese, this means using the verb kakeru meaning, “to hang,” which implies the placement of the mask turns the actor into the character he is portraying.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of the Hannya mask?

The Hannya mask has its origins in Japanese Noh theater, which dates back to the 14th century. It represents a woman transformed into a demon by jealousy and rage. The mask's name is derived from the artist Hannyabō, who is credited with its creation. The Hannya mask is a powerful cultural symbol in Japan, embodying complex emotions and the duality of beauty and terror.

What do the different expressions of a Hannya mask signify?

The Hannya mask's expressions are nuanced and signify a range of emotions. When viewed straight on, the mask appears angry and malevolent, but when tilted down, it can convey sorrow. This duality reflects the tortured spirit of the woman the mask depicts, caught between her human emotions and her demonic nature. The intricate design captures the transformation of love into hatred and despair.

How is the Hannya mask used in performances?

In traditional Noh theater, the Hannya mask is used to portray a female character who has become a demon due to extreme emotions. The actor's skillful manipulation of the mask, through subtle movements and angles, conveys the character's complex emotional state to the audience. The mask's transformative power enhances the storytelling, making it a central element in the dramatic narrative of Noh plays.

Are there different types of Hannya masks?

Yes, there are variations of the Hannya mask that represent different levels of demonic transformation. The color and shape of the horns, among other features, can indicate the demon's power and the nature of the emotions it embodies. For example, a mask with gold-colored horns and a more subdued expression might represent an aristocratic woman's spirit, while one with redder hues and fiercer features could depict a more vengeful and powerful demon.

Can anyone own a Hannya mask, and are they used outside of theater?

While traditionally used in Noh theater, Hannya masks have become popular decorative items and are available for purchase. Collectors and enthusiasts of Japanese culture often own them. Beyond theater, the Hannya mask has found its way into various aspects of popular culture, including fashion, tattoos, and artwork, as a symbol of complex emotions and the human experience.

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Discussion Comments


@SteamLouis-- This is true. One of the most popular Japanese plays where a hannya mask is used is Aoi No Ue. It is about the jealous spirit of a mistress who possesses the body of her lover's wife for revenge. The spirit is then exorcised from the body.


@turquoise-- Actually, the explanation I've heard about the hannya character is that it's a female who turned into a demon due to torment. Some say that it's due to jealousy over a loved one.

The hannya mask is truly a piece of art. I saw it when I visited Japan. I did not see a play, but a friend showed me the masks and the meanings behind them. The amazing part of this mask is that when you look at it straight, it looks very angry and upset. It looks dangerous. But if you look at it from underneath, it actually looks sad. The mouth has been carved in such a way that it appears to give a slightly different expression based on how one looks at it.

This is done intentionally because it represents both the anger and the sadness of this demon.


This is so interesting. So the hannya mask is a mask of a ghost or spirit, but that ghost is female? Does this mean that these are the spirits of women who were hurt or killed by their husbands?

I've never seen a Japanese play before but it sounds very intriguing. I hope that I get the opportunity to see it sometime.

Has anyone here seen a Japanese play with a hannya character?

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