Saturday, April 22, 2023

Introduction to Japanese Masks

An Introduction to Japanese Masks お面

A selection of onna masks representing young women in Noh Dramas.
A selection of onna masks representing young women in Noh Dramas

Like many ancient cultures all around the planet, Japan has used and produced various types of masks that were probably originally used in rituals and magic and that later developed into storytelling and theatre. Outside of the various types of masked theatre, numerous participants in festivals wear masks.

There are many recognizable types of masks that are found all over the country and can be said to represent a purely Japanese style, but many regions and localities have unique forms not found elsewhere in the country.

In Japan, masks are considered to possess power and so are used not just as decoration but also to protect shrines, temples, and increasingly homes.

A Noh-mask carver in Hofu, Yamaguchi, applying pigment to a mask.
A Noh-mask carver in Hofu, Yamaguchi, applying pigment to a mask

Noh Theatre

Japanese mask-making reached its peak with the masks created for Noh dramas. Noh is a style of musical theatre from the 14th century and is still performed today. Masks are integral to Noh, with hundreds of different ones produced for characters both human and supernatural, but an interesting feature of noh masks is that to a large extent they are made to be expressionless. The art is in making masks that display different emotional states just by changing the angle of the mask. Noh masks are carved from a single block of wood, usually cypress, and painted using minimal, natural pigments.

The most iconic of Japanese masks, the female demon known as Hanya.
The most iconic of Japanese masks, the female demon known as Hanya

Hannya

Perhaps the most well-known Noh mask is the Hanya, or Hannya, a type of female demon. With sharp horns and teeth, and a somewhat leering mouth, Hanya masks express a range of emotions from demonic and angry to tormented and melancholic as the Hanya represents what happens to women when they are betrayed and become angry and jealous. The hanya mask is so iconic it is seen in many other forms of art and is a very popular design element in tattoos.

A selection of wooden masks made not to be worn but displayed.
A selection of wooden masks made not to be worn but displayed

Oni Demon

The Oni mask is probably the type of mask with the widest variations across the different regions of the country. Oni is most often translated as "demon", but in fact "ogre" would probably be a better translation as in the West demons are considered pure evil, but oni, while generally doing bad, can in some cases be capable of doing good. Oni come in a variety of colors and are usually quite hairy and horned and in many stories are obviously linked with outsiders and the wild and dangerous mountains.

Namahage demon masks from the Tohoku area of northern Japan.
Namahage demon masks from the Tohoku area of northern Japan

Tengu

Often referred to as "forest goblins", red-faced and long-nosed Tengu are also a very common mask found throughout Japan. Earlier versions of the Tengu called Karasu Tengu, "Crow Tengu", had beaks but most nowadays have the very phallic long nose and wear a small black cap called a tokin which are worn by the mountain-dwelling ascetics called Yamabushi who spend time in the mountains gaining magical powers. Tengu and yamabushi are inextricably linked and tengu masks are very common at shrines and temples and sacred mountains connected to Yamabushi all over Japan.

Masks from the Kunisaki Peninsula in Kyushu are very striking and would not look out of place in Africa.
Masks from the Kunisaki Peninsula in Kyushu are very striking and would not look out of place in Africa

Sarutahiko

The development of the long-nosed Tengu from the Crow Tengu is probably linked to a character from ancient mythology called Sarutahiko. He is said to have led the imperial ancestors to Japan from the High Plain of Heaven.

Consequently a character wearing a Sarutahiko mask will usually lead a festival procession, though nowadays it may just as likely be a tengu mask. Sarutahiko married a goddess called Uzume and they are said to be the ancestors of the clan who served as theatrical performers.

She is often represented with a rather chubby, round-faced mask, and a male-female pair of Sarutahiko and Uzume masks are commonly found together. They are also used in a few of the remaining phallic festivals that remain in Japan.

In many agricultural-based festivals and folk dances male dancers wear rather comical, simple-minded, peasant masks. Often playing the fool, he is often represented with his mouth stuck in a twisted and protruded position that comes from a character called Hyottoko whose face is stuck in that expression by blowing through a bamboo pipe to keep the coals of a forge fire going.

Masks of various kinds, especially demons, are put up in buildings to protect against various forms of misfortune, but some masks, specifically those of  Daikoku and Ebisu who are two of the Seven Lucky Gods, are put up especially by businesses, to attract good fortune and success.

Purchase a Range of Traditional Masks from Japan

Purchase a selection of traditional masks from GoodsFromJapan

Jake Davies

Gallery

A mask-maker in Oita working on a Hanya mask.
A mask-maker in Oita working on a Hanya mask
Standing guard during Setsubun at a Kyoto temple, an unusual single-horned oni mask.
Standing guard during Setsubun at a Kyoto temple, an unusual single-horned oni mask
A variety of different Tengu masks including a Karasu Tengu, top centre.
A variety of different Tengu masks including a Karasu Tengu, top centre
Giant Tengu mask at Kurama, a famous yamabushi site near Kyoto.
Giant Tengu mask at Kurama, a famous yamabushi site near Kyoto
Sarutahiko, wearing a tengu mask, leads a mikoshi parade.
Sarutahiko, wearing a tengu mask, leads a mikoshi parade
Hyottoko mask worn during a rice planting festival.
Hyottoko mask worn during a rice planting festival

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Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Japanese Culture Religious and Philosophical Foundations

Japanese Culture: The Religious and Philosophical Foundations

Japanese Culture: The Religious and Philosophical Foundations

by Roger J. Davies

Tuttle (2016)

ISBN: 978-4805311639
Paperback, 160 pp

Japanese Culture Religious and Philosophical Foundations.

What have been the most powerful influences shaping Japan over its long history? Exactly what has each of these influences contributed to make Japan what it is today?

Professor Roger J. Davis has put together this interesting book from his college lectures designed for international business students studying in an MBA program at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

At 160 pages (125 without the appendixes), it is not an exhausting tome, but it is enough to inform and entertain any reader wanting some of the basics.

The first two chapters are spent not on expounding on the most significant influences, but on the basics of where the Japanese people came from and what models social scientists usually use in dissecting civilizations.

From there, there are six more chapters, with each chapter dealing with one of what Davies says are the main influences which helped shape Japanese society. Arranged chronologically, they are: Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, Confucianism and Western Influences in the Modern Era.

Each chapter ends with extra notes on that chapter's main topic, followed by discussion questions. Some of the discussion questions can be answered quickly, even by novices. An example from the Western Influences chapter would be; "It is often claimed that contemporary Japanese society is highly secular and materialistic. Do you agree or disagree?" Anybody who has lived in Japan for any period of time can offer a reasonable opinion on this.

Other discussion questions require a deeper knowledge to even attempt an answer. An example of this from the Zen chapter would be; "Although Zen is not the largest sect in Japan, it is the most popular and widely recognized in the West. Why is it not as popular as other Buddhist sects in Japan?"

For all of its modern technological wonders, Japan got off to a late start according to Edwin Reischaeur, former US Ambassador to Japan, who is frequently quoted throughout the book, and who has several entries in the helpful six-page bibliography.

Reischaeur is quoted as saying, "The (Japanese) islands were thousands of years behind Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and China in the introduction of agriculture and centuries behind in the use of bronze and iron."

One of the more interesting sections delineates how the Japanese government started and propagated state Shinto - with special focus on education and thought police - to move the Japanese citizens towards accepting war.  Shinto and state Shinto were very different things.
Reischaeur makes the case that state Shinto was "a ruthless attack on Buddhism." It sure was an attack on something.

Overall, the book would be interesting for almost any reader, but if you are already an expert on the religious and philosophical foundations of Japan, you might find the depth a little lacking.

Note: This book is a follow up to Davies' well-acclaimed "The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture," which was published in 2002.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Exposure Review

Exposure: From President to Whistleblower at Olympus

Exposure

by Michael Woodford

Penguin (2013)

ISBN: 978-0241-9636-16
Paperback, 272 pp

Exposure: From President to Whistleblower at Olympus.

One of the biggest financial scandals in Japanese history was the 2011 scandal surrounding Olympus Corporation. The scandal is said to have involved $US1.7 billion, or more.

In April, 2011, British national Michael Woodford, who had worked at Olympus for 30 years, became chief operating officer, and in October of that year he took the reigns as chief executive officer. Almost immediately after becoming CEO, Woodford sniffed out giant financial shenanigans in Olympus and started asked questions.

Two weeks after taking over he was fired for, it turned out, having uncovered the malfeasance, but he remained on the board of directors as those positions are determined by shareholders.

Fearing for his life, and suspecting that Japan's yakuza might be involved in the fraud - a suspicion that turned out to be erroneous - Woodford fled Japan and headed home to England.

He immediately contacted the Serious Fraud Office and New Scotland Yard, and was interviewed by a number of major media. He had covered his bases well by sending emails with his questions and suspicions to numerous people. The word was out, and he was safely, hopefully safely, in England.

In 2012, Woodford wrote this book about the whole sordid affair.
One thing that many readers must overlook is the seemingly unquenchable ego that Woodford displays throughout the book. He is to be commended for working his way up from a lowly start in life, but he is eager to let everyone know how posh his lifestyle was.
There are numerous examples of this, from his expensive champagne to his hotel room with the 1,000-book library and baby grand piano. Admittedly he was upgraded to that by his hotel for being a frequent customer, but you get the idea.

The book was written in late 2012, and occasionally references are a bit anachronistic. For example, of the four foreigners who had headed major Japanese companies he writes, "with only Carlos Ghosn of Nissan remaining, Japan seemed to be shutting the doors (on foreign leaders of Japanese companies)." The door on Ghosn would later shut as he escaped the country in 2019 while hiding in a musical instrument box while out on bail for alleged crimes during a later corporate scandal involving a foreign CEO.

One thing that inquiring minds will want to know is what happened to the bad guys involved. How many of them got locked up in jail and for how long? The book doesn't answer these questions, but the info can be found on line. Hint: Not many and not long enough.

The civil lawsuits were more fruitful. In May of 2019, well after the book was published, the Tokyo District court handed out a fine of 59.4 billion yen (then US $594 million) to the three main miscreants, former president Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, former executive vice president Hisashi Mori and former statutory auditor Hideo Yamada.
Additionally, Woodford was later awarded £10 million for personal damages.

The exact fraud, basically a tobashi scheme, is not fully explained until about ¾ of the way through the book. The explanation may be a little bit hard to follow for some laymen, but readers don't need to fully understand how it worked to understand the gravity of the situation.
After all, $US1,700,000,000 ($1.7 billion) is a lot of fraud.
Woodford's work is easy to read and the pages fly by. Readers don't have to like Woodford personally (though some certainly will) to enjoy the book and learn about an interesting chapter of recent Japanese history.

Exposure Review.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

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