Hannya Noh Mask

The Meaning Behind the Hannya Mask

The first thing most people would notice when they see a Hannya mask (般若) is the widely stretched, upturned mouth and the frighteningly long fangs that point in outward directions. The eyes of the Hannya mask are large and expressive - hinting a multitude of emotions such as anger, pain, jealousy, and sadness.

The Hannya mask has become a cliché symbol in Noh theatrical plays and is therefore extremely hard to use without a considerable dose of irony within the framework of parody. The Hannya mask is not only threatening in appearance; it is also melancholic in character, where the drooping eyebrows show sorrow and suffering mingled with the lust for revenge.

The meaning behind the mask can take on a variety of forms when portrayed by Irezumi (Japanese style tattoo) artists. Irezumi artist would deviate from the traditional colors of white, red, and dark red to some blues, greens, and yellows; sometimes incorporating various hues and tones.

It doesn't stop there. Today, Irezumi-inspired shops such as Irezumi Empire, showcase different merchandise portraying the Hannya on a modern twist. Other components are incorporated such as flowers, tidal waves, cherry blossoms, snakes, leaves, koi, and dragons; just to name a few. 

But what truly is the meaning behind the mask? For us to get an answer to that question, we are going to look into the history and origin of the Hannya mask.

The Origin of the word Hannya 

The exact origin of the Hannya mask has been much debated. The name Hannya (般若) is a Sino-Japanese word for "wisdom" or Prajñā, the Japanese version of the Sanskrit for "wisdom".

In Japanese tradition, the Noh Mask was given the name Hannya as it was the name of the artist monk Hannya-bō (般若坊), who have mastered the creation of such mask. Some say that the artist who would carve the Hannya mask would need an ample amount of wisdom to create such a mask.

Hannya Mask in Traditional Japanese Theatre


The Hannya Mask is one of the most iconic Noh masks used in Japanese traditional theater. It depicts an envious female demon with two devil horns, piercing metallic eyes, and leering teeth. It is not a symbol or an abstraction of jealousy; it is a physical transformation of a jealous woman or of a spirit that has momentarily left the body and taken another form. 


The Process of making a Hannya mask

If you're curious as to how the Hannya mask or Noh masks are made traditionally, there are 6 basic stages of making the Hannya mask: 

  • Sawing and rough carving
  • Fine carving
  • Treatment of the back
  • Basic painting and smoothening
  • Painting features, and
  • Finishing


Some might add a final stage: aging. They say that leaving a newly finished Hannya mask for some time before using it lets the expression settle...

For the First Stage, the mask maker starts with a single rectangular piece of wood, marking the middle of the wood and outlining the face. He then carves the wood with a hammer and chisel until the mask begins to take form.  

The Second Stage that follows is the fine carving, which decides the basic expression of the mask. Using a flat or curved blade, this stage of Hannya mask making is more time-consuming and a very difficult stage.

In carving, it is hard to make up for such mistakes; one can always take away, but one cannot add to the form. Some mask makers would gradually work on one side at a time in order to never lose sight of the final image he is striving towards.

When the basic expression of the Hannya mask is achieved, the back is hollowed out more to allow for opening up of eyes, nose, and mouth, this is the Third Stage. It is done with a small sharp drill rotated between the palms of the hands.

Carving the back of the mask has no fixed pattern, this allows the mask maker great freedom of expression to put that mark of individuality denied from him in the front. 

Then begins the time-consuming drudgery of painting and smoothing, which is the Fourth Stage. The basic ingredients used for painting are gofun and nikawa.

Nikawa is a gluey liquid that is used to harden the surface of the mask. The more glue, the harder the surface and shinier the mask is when polished. After the basic painting, mask makers must allow the mask to dry, they are very careful not to paint in the rainy season or on wet days. 

After drying, the Hannya mask is then sanded down with stems of the tokusa plant which contains silicic acid, which is very hard and suitable for polishing the mask until the wood shines and the paint is left only in the grooves. The painting of coats is then repeated multiple times or as many times as necessary to produce a smooth skin surface. 

The Fifth Stage is then applied when the mask is perfectly smooth and white. The white paint is then tinted with different pigments as required for the basic color of the mask. Using a porous material around a sponge leaving a much rougher final coat of paint. Thereafter, the mask is again smoothened to bring out little spots and marks all over the mask. These natural blemishes are brought out to give more subtlety to the mask.

The Sixth and Final Stage is now polishing the entire surface with a felt cloth. This is done to bring out the sheen of the mask. Then, the string is attached to the Hannya mask which is made of silk, braided to give the right amount of elasticity but without stretching too much when tying around the head. 

The Hannya masks in Japanese Folklore

These Hannya masks are used in Japanese theatrical plays such as Noh or Kyogen. Although seemingly quite masculine  in appearance, the Hannya mask is a representation of a human female who was scorned by a lover and became mad with jealousy. Hannya are a kind of oni (鬼) or demon, specifically, demons called Kijo (鬼女).

In Japanese folklore, the Hannya is said to have come from beautiful women who are scorned by a lover--betrayed by those they love or are left behind for another woman. They can come in the form of a physical transformation of the body or a spiritual apparition known as an Ikiryō (生霊) or living ghosts. It's a popular belief in Japanese tales, wherein, a spirit emerges from a living person and subsequently haunts those who have wronged her.


One such spirit was that of Lady Rokujō (六条御息所) from Aoi no Ue (葵上) which is a play based on the novel The Tale of Genji (源氏物語). Lady Rokujō was a beautiful noblewoman and widow of Prince Zembo. She has been a longtime mistress to Genji but was eventually ignored when Genji's wife became pregnant. This made her angry and jealous, filling her with rage and contempt. Her hatred for Genji's wife grows stronger as the days pass. Because of this, Lady Rokujō's Ikiryō manifests and haunts Genji's pregnant wife, Lady Aoi. The vengeful spirit possesses and torments Lady Aoi, which leads to her death shortly after giving birth to Genji's son, Yûgiri.

Lady Aoi, however, was not the first victim to fall to the rage of Hannya. Prior to this, Genji visited one of the ailing former nurses. In his visit, he sees a dilapidated house and flowers surrounding it. He tells one of his servants to pick a flower and give it to him. Suddenly, a beautiful woman exits the home and hands one of the flowers to the servant. This moment captures Genji's heart and he actively pursues her within the next few days. The woman tries her best to hide her identity. He gives her the name "Yugao", which means "evening face". 

When Yugao finally agrees to meet up with Genji to a secluded house, they spend the evening passionately in each other's arms. However, that night of bliss was short-lived as Genji began to have a terrible dream of a demon who resembled his former lover, Lady Rokujō. When he woke up, Yugao was already dead. Killed by the demon in her sleep.

Another popular folklore tells the story of Watanabe no Tsuna, a samurai who heard about a Hannya that was tormenting people who tried to pass through the Rashomon gate in Kyoto. Wanting to stop the demon from doing such evil deeds, the brave samurai went to the gate and waited for the demon to appear. Soon, a beautiful woman approached him and asked to accompany her home. Like the gentleman that he was, he did just that. On their walk, he glanced back at her as she was taking on the form of a demon. He took his blade and slashed off her arm. The demon ran away and vanished. Watanabe took the severed arm, wrapped it, and locked it in his chest. 

Different Types of Hannya Masks

The Hannya masks traditionally come in 3 skin tones--White, Red, and Dark Red - each showing the different social status of women in society.

White or pale-toned masks indicate that the woman is from noble heritage and has a refined character. Red masks are usually women of common or lower status. Deep red masks are true demons or were demons in the guise of a human female. This shows that regardless of class, no one is safe from the wantons of the heart and the dangers of being spurned. 

3 Different Stages of Becoming a Demonic Hannya


Known as the preliminary stage to becoming Hannya. They can use dark magic on those they detest. Smaller horns can be seen on their heads as compared to the other two. These demons still resemble humans and are not completely evil. Their demonic nature can still be reversed and they have a chance of returning to humanity. They are greatly vulnerable to exorcism and prayers.

An example of this is from the play ‘Noh Kanawa’. Shite, a scorned wife whose husband left her for another woman and is seeking revenge. Although Shite had aggressive feelings towards her husband and his new wife, her emotions were not strong enough to manifest a demon. She had to be assisted by a ritual in order for a possession to take place.


A much deadlier Koji with intense feelings of jealousy and vengeance. More powerful compared to Namanari, these demons have longer horns, sharp claws, fangs, and have stronger abilities. They can still be affected by prayers from monks and, with a lot more effort, have a chance of being exorcised. Lady Rokujō from Aoi no Ue fits in this category. Her Ikiryō was exorcised by Shugenja (修験者), or priests and scribes of Rokugan, after she possessed Lady Aoi who had just given birth. Unfortunately, the exorcism was too heavy a toll on Lady Aoi, and she soon passed away.


The strongest of the three female demons. Hate, jealousy, and vengeance run so deep in the woman that they have completely embraced the possession of the demon. Nothing can turn them back to normal. They take on the form of a giant serpent and can breathe fire on their target. One such example of this is Kiyohime (清姫) or Lady Kiyo from the famous noh play Dōjō-ji.

When she was a child, she would declare her love for the traveling priest every year whenever he would lodge at the manor of her family during his pilgrimage. Anchin would jokingly agree to be her when she got older but as she entered marrying age, her obsession with being his wife persisted. He had no choice but to turn down her advances. Her intense feelings of love and blind admiration towards the handsome young priest drove her insane, to the point that it fully turned her into a demonic, fire-breathing serpent.  

So, Is It Safe To Wear the Hannya Mask?

Despite all this, the Hannya has gained popularity among many art lovers and is regarded as one of the most popular designs for tattoo artists. 

Because of the rich symbolism and history of the Japanese style, there is no doubt that the Hannya mask design is in high demand.

In modern Japan, Hannya masks are used for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. The meaning behind the mask can represent jealousy, rage, or sadness. Perhaps wearing the mask in whatever form leans towards the symbol of wisdom and luck, warding off evil or negative emotions.

However, whatever your Hannya mask represents, it is always open to many personal interpretations and this is one of the reasons why the Hannya mask is such a popular subject for Japanese style art or design...

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