The Meaning Behind a Hannya Mask

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Devil’s horns. Sad eyes. Wide, crazy mouth. It can only be a tired but super professional Alice Cooper after a heady series of stadium concerts.

No? Oh all right. The heavy metal-like description is a hannya mask — one of the more popular motifs for anyone who’s into Japanese tattoos. It’s especially requested by guys.

Although the recognizable mask looks similar to a heavy metal maestro rocking out even while fatigued, this Japanese mask is not even a dude.

So if you’ve been mulling over a hannya mask tattoo because you think it’s about one badass mother, think again.

The Hannya Mask: What is It?

Hannya Mask
Photo from iromgane.com on Pinterest

The hannya mask comes from the noh and kyogen theater, which feature Japanese folklore and the supernatural in classical musical performances. The stories are told by the supernatural being who takes on a human form. The actors wear masks to represent stock characters — and one of them is the hannya: a woman whose fierce jealousy takes hold of her so much that it turns her into this demonic-like creature.

Before you judge this character, let’s take a look at what “inspired” her rage.

The mask is used prominently on a Katsushika Hokusai play called “The Laughing Demon.” In it, a married man named Prince Genji has focused all his attention on his wife, Lady Aoi, leaving his mistress, Lady Rokujo,  seething with jealousy. When Prince Genji returns to his faithful duties as a husband, Lady Rokujo decides to take matters into her hands. She kills the Lady Aoi. Another demon gets mixed up in this story, a yamauba or mountain woman who eats infants.

Some pretty dark stuff right there, all right.

So is the Japanese hannya mask simply about homicidal rage borne out of jealousy — and lurid themes?

What is the Meaning of Hannya Mask Tattoo?

Hannya Mask tattoo on arm
Photo from World Tattoo Gallery on Pinterest

Your hannya mask tattoo doesn’t have to represent the dark side; heartbreak, jealousy and possession. In Japanese culture, the gnarly-looking mask can represent good luck — not the kind Brian Mills (Liam Neeson) meant in “Taken.” The kind that keeps you protected, like an owl tattoo.

Some people attach a hannya mask token on their keychains to beat back evil. What better way to check malevolence than a malevolent-looking mask, right? So it makes sense to get a hannya tattoo for protection.

Another symbolic meaning to the hannya mask is wisdom. How would this demonic, rage-fueled mask symbolize wisdom? Turns out, “hannya” is Japanese for “wisdom.” It has its roots in the Buddhist concept called “perfect wisdom,” which leads to enlightenment.

The association reportedly came from the use of the mask in noh theater, specifically the “Aoi no Ue,” a play about Lady Aoi. In it, a line is uttered during an exorcism of Lady Rokujō from Lady Aoi, sealing the connection between the dark mask and wisdom: “Oh, how horrible! The voice of wisdom is like a demon!” It’s what the evil spirit proclaims after being driven out.

Your tattoo could also symbolize as a judge of good and evil. Japanese folklore sees demons like hannya as punishers.

Another meaning behind your Japanese demon tattoo is a dark history in your life, one that still haunts you to this day. Your hannya tattoo could serve as a reminder not to go through that shit again. It could also be interpreted as a triumph; that you kicked whatever bad time you had, and you’ve come out of the dark tunnel into the light as a better person.

The meaning of a hannya mask can also be straightforward; you have it as a tattoo because you’re into noh theater, or that you just love anything to do with Japanese culture.

What’s the Difference Between the Oni and Hannya Mask?

Red Oni Mask
Photo by top5review.com on Pinterest

Japanese folklore has plenty of odd-looking masks, and the hannya mask isn’t alone in its demonic appearance. You may have heard about the oni mask and seen it looking a tad like the jealous lady’s mask.

The difference between an oni mask and a hannya mask is the gender: oni represents a male demon whereas hannya is female.

And unlike the hannya, the oni has a few varying origins.

An oni could have come from:

  • A vicious soul beyond redemption
  • A creature of hell passing down sentences
  • A soul of the dead

The hannya mask only has one constant origin, but it does have three forms:

  1. Namanari – still look like women but have beginner demon capabilities; the namanari has a chance to turn human again.
  2. Chūnari – a mid-level demon with more powers than the namanari but become weak against Buddhist prayers.
  3.  Honnari – certified demons with snake-like bodies and the ability to breathe fire. It’s the final stage wherein the namanari’s just surrendered to the toxic jealousy she’s been nursing.

The oni mask also looks a little different from the hannya mask. Although deemed as a male demon, the oni is also depicted as an ogre; one that walks around with a loincloth and carries a club. So you’ll sometimes see a mask with multiple horns, razor-sharp fangs and savage hair. Those ogres rarely do manscaping. And they may sometimes have a third eye on the forehead, or extra toes and fingers.

Whereas the hannya mask seems basic enough as a demon scorned by a lover, the oni mask is one hairy, scary dude who looks as if he’d spent too much time in the man cave after a bad break up.

They make a nice pair, these two.

Which brings me to their similarities. Both can be depicted in different colors. The oni mask can be red, blue, yellow, black or green. The hannya can be dark red or lighter in complexion. The color intensity on a hannya mask tattoo will signify the degree of rage; light complexion means there’s still a bit of human in the woman whereas the deep red means she’s out for blood.

Your hannya mask tattoo could be designed as a kind of transformation; a rebirth.

Is it Bad to Get a Hannya Tattoo?

woman unzipping herself to reveal a demon
Photo by outsons.com on Pinterest

Since you know more now about this Japanese demon mask, is it a good idea to get one?

Why not?

Even Yakuza members favor this tattoo design; maybe it has something to do with punishing evil or that it could ward off evil. Their choice of tattoo could also represent their unwillingness to forgive a transgression, so you never want to mess with them. Hell hath no fury, and all that.

The bottom line is that a tattoo is a personal choice; and unless your skin art is advocating the total annihilation of one species or race or supporting pure, unadulterated evil through your tattoo, this particular design doesn’t have to be bad.

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