Perhaps one of the most iconic images associated with Japanese art are devilish looking masks most notably of the Hannya, Oni and Tengu. These masks are often depictions of Japanese mythological demons and continue to be used in Japanese art, pop culture and even by many tattoo artists because of their distinctly fearsome and yet appealing features. The samurai of Feudal Japan had armored masks known as Men-yoroi that were often crafted to depict the vicious facial features of these entities in order to strike fear into their enemies on the battlefield.
It is because of these demonic like features, many associate these masks with the evil entities they represent and are sometimes viewed as evil objects in themselves. Alternative and even positive roles for these masks however have developed in the modern era as their crafting has since moved away from being used to strike fear into enemies on the battlefield and instead are believed to strike fear into evil to ward it off. Let us explore the rich history of the Hannya, Oni and Tengu to better understand what these masks depict and how these masks became popularized outside of warfare.
Hannya in Japanese mythology are often associated with scorned and vengeful women who has taken the form of a demon. The word Hannya is thought to be derived from the Sino-Japanese word for wisdom and is speculated to be called that due to it takes a great deal of wisdom to create a complex Hannya mask. Another theory is that it is derived from the artist monk Hannya-bo, who it is believed perfected making Hannya masks. One yet further theory is that Hannya, Oni, Tengu and the like have wisdom and dark secrets to give that must be learned with caution. This we will explore in more detail later on.
Quite terrifying in nature, Hannya are often depicted with horns, disheveled hair and a large grin with sharp teeth to convey their wrathful nature. Masks and art depicting Hannya however, despite their initial aggressive appearance, are actually quite intricate in their design and are created in order to depict a wide range of human emotions at once. As such, Hannya masks are often designed that when looked upon straight ahead the full wrathful features depict an angry and scornful demon, however when tilted downward, appears to be a woman crying and full of sorrow. This duality demonstrates how one's own torment and despair can lead to anger that consumes and transforms you into a wrathful entity.
Looked at in this light, we can see that Hannya masks in themselves are not wholly evil as that they can serve as a warning of allowing our emotions to go unchecked that we may be consumed by them. It is thus where the word “wisdom” for Hannya begins to make sense as through understanding one's own emotionally turmoil can we gain a better understanding of ourselves. In Buddhism, this could be equated to finding a path to Enlightenment to break the cycle of reincarnation known as Samsara, a key ideological belief that is intertwined in Japanese culture that we will see more of with our discussion on Oni.
Oni in Japanese mythology are demons, often depicted as hulking ogres with horns, demonic faces who wield giant clubs. Similar in appearance to the Hannya, the two are often confused and sometimes used interchangeably, however are generally considered to be predominately male, which is counter to the female Hannya. The etymology for the word Oni has various interpretations, with some associating it with the Japanese word on which means “to hide” as these figures often hide in the shadows or within alternate realms of existence. The term has also been known to represent the spirit of those who have passed on into the afterlife. These entities are often associated with the Japanese supernatural realm and have been depicted in various forms with various purposes with the most powerful Oni believed to be among the Buddhist Wrathful Deities as those who punish evil doers in the afterlife.
This is further effaced by the Buddhist conception of King Yama, often depicted as an Oni. King Yama (popularized in the animated television series Dragon Ball Z) is the magistrate of the Buddhist underworld known as Naraka and is believed to preside over cycle of rebirth and reincarnation (Samsara). King Yama is therefore not an evil figure and is instead represented as a fearsome executor of justice. Here we again see how these Hannya and Oni entities, while vicious in appearance, can represent more positive figures behind the mask so to speak.
Often the Northeastern direction is known as the kimon or “demon gate” through which evil spirits are believed to pass through. As such temples are often built facing this direction accompanied by large Ni-O statues in order to ward off evil spirits and prevent their entering the human realm. These Ni-O statues are a fierce representation of the Bodhisatva Vajrapani who is said to have traveled with Siddartha Guatama (Buddha) as his protector. It it is here that we begin to see figures depicted as aggressive and fierce in a positive light as protectors to ward off other evil or corrupted spirits.
We begin to see the prominence of masks outside of warfare depicting both Oni and Hannya in traditional Japanese Noh plays where actors wear what are known as Noh masks. Here we will begin to see the elegance of craftsmanship that would go into making these masks for the sake of art and not war. Noh translates as having special skills and so the plays that incorporated such masks were known for their artistic dramatic content that showcased the actors skills in poetry, music, art, dance and other specialized talents. The masks associated with these plays were in stark contrast to the more commonly known Kabuki plays, where face paint was often used instead of masks. These masks added to the dramatic nature of the Noh plays with the five primarily types of masks used being: old man, man, woman, ghost and demon. Each of these five types of masks are further broken down into either being “good looking” masks which represented approachable and amicable characters or “fierce looking” masks which were often depicted having horns, red or green colored paint, sharp teeth and bulging eyes.
A deeper meaning lies behind the mask in that their “fierce” appearance is actually to “kill evil by evil” and thus despite their depiction of quite wicked and evil appearing characters, they are meant to be protective in nature.1 The concept of Oni & Hannya masks as protective objects has grown in modern times with even today parades in Japan are often led by men in Oni costumes whose function it is to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. Onigawara have also grown in popularity in Japan, which are Oni faced roof tiles built into buildings in order to ward off evil akin to the Western idea of gargoyles.2
A third type of mask we see that has grown in popularity is that of the Tengu, a genuinely malevolent creature from Buddhism that is believed to lead people astray from the path of Enlightenment. In Japanese mythology, it is often depicted with a long nose, red colored skin and bird like qualities akin to the Hindu/Buddhist/Jain Garuda, found quite often in Thai culture. These creatures are often represented as pure evil in nature and often considered to be in direct opposition to Buddhism. Stories exemplifying this role are laid out in the Konjaku Monogatarishu written in the later part of the Heian period (794-1185) where Tengu attempt to lead holy men and women astray through false promises and deceptive itactics. Later stories would indicate that Tengu were the souls of corrupted priests and beings who had been led astray and now had the ability to possess people. Other depictions have captured Tengu as mischievous, kidnapping priests and children, however would return them after putting them through a series of ordeals.
Despite these tales of wickedness, other stories depict Tengu in a less sinister light. This is effaced in the 18th century work The Demon's Sermon by Issai Chozanshi where the story depicts a samurai who travels to Mt. Kurama and is met by a group of Tengu who impart upon him the secrets of swordsmanship. Here we circle back to the concept of “wisdom” that is found in the etymology of Hannya signifying that perhaps these sinister creatures have greater knowledge and wisdom to impart with their activities and are not mere agents of evil. Continuing on this train of thought, when examined, the actions of Tengu seem to indicate that they are mere influencers or wrongdoing, tempting humans towards their own undoing and not agents of evil deeds themselves. As such, we can now view Tengu as testers of humankind and their own willpower. The story of The Demons's Sermon further reinforces this concept as the Tengu are imparting the secrets of swordsmanship, the knowledge in of itself is not inherently evil, however if misused can indeed be used to facilitate warfare and evil acts. It is therefor the responsibility of individuals to use this knowledge wisely and to stick to their inherent convictions not to allow themselves to be led astray by these supernatural entities.
Here we now come face to face with answering the question: Are Hannya, Oni and Tengu masks good or evil? The answer lies in one's own interpretation and spiritual convictions. As these entities are often associated with wrongdoing, if one obtains such masks in order to seek protection from them to help in the facilitation of evil deeds then this is indeed an evil purpose. This is perhaps effaced by the nefarious Japanese gangsters known as the Yakuza, who's intricate full body tattoos often depict such creatures as Hannya, Oni and Tengu, and then continue to engage in illicit acts. If however one looks upon these masks and sees them for their true nature; reminders of how we as humans can be the agents of our own undoing should we fall victim to temptation, then they can serve as a positive reflective mirror to be ever vigilant in our own actions and to strive for higher levels of consciousness beyond worldly desires. If viewed in such a way, these masks can in themselves be masks of ourselves depicting characteristics that all humans are subject to in an effort to avoid falling victim to them.
Whether you believe in negative entities or not, it is in this manner that we ourselves can ward off the evils of this world and be ever vigilant in striving towards leading a positive and enlightening life. Through reinforcing our own will power, these masks can indeed be used as armor against evil as their fierce gaze can ward off evil by serving as a testament to our own fierce and iron will against negativity.
SHOTO KHAN DESIGNS
Shoto Khan Designs specializes in creating tattoo style woodburns of traditional Japanese art such as Kanji, Ukiyo-E, Oni/Hannya Masks and Buddhas. Custom orders are also available.
All woodburns featured in this article are based on classic designs by world famous tattoo artist Hori Mouja and are available for sale via our online shop at:
1 Wu, Yufei. Analysis of Mask Art in Japanese Noh, Atlantis Press, 1 Aug. 2019, www.atlantis-press.com/proceedings/icadce-19/125916063.