History of Samurai Masks

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Young samurai with a sword.
Young samurai with a sword. (Image: HOMITOHIKARU/iStock/Getty Images)

High-ranking samurai warriors of medieval Japan wore elaborate and expensive suits of armor designed to not only protect them from enemy weapons, but also to incorporate symbolism from Japanese mythology and art. The armor of the highest-ranked warriors may have included an elaborate crest mounted on the top of the helmet, as well as a metal or leather face mask.

Early Simple Designs

The happuri was a style of face mask from the 1100s that protected only the forehead and temples of the person wearing it. According to "The Gods of War: Sacred Imagery and the Decoration of Arms and Armor," masks that covered only part of the face were worn in Japan during the Muromachi era, between 1333 and 1573. Early designs were simple and lacking in symbolism, but the masks became more elaborate over time.

Protective Coverage

Samurai during the Muromachi era preferred certain types of masks. The most common was the hoate, which covered everything below the eyes. Some warriors preferred the mempo, a mask that protected the entire face. The sarubo -- or "monkey cheek" style -- protected the chin and the cheeks, while the tsubamegata -- or "swallow pattern" style -- covered the chin and nothing else. The era was a period of frequent warfare, so the samurai were more concerned with protection on the battlefield than with decoration.

Masks as Disguise

Sometime during the 1400s, armorers began to create masks designed to look like human faces. Samurai often chose masks that were clever or humorous. For instance, old warriors often wore masks that made them look like young men, while young warriors chose masks that made them look older. Some masks depicted a Korean person, a "Southern barbarian" or a woman. Other samurai, concerned that their heads would be thrown away instead of taken as trophies if they were mistaken for women, had mustaches attached to the masks so no one would be in doubt about their gender.

Supernatural Symbolism

Samurai who wanted to appear ferocious chose to wear masks depicting supernatural beings. Japanese armorers made ghost masks, evil demon masks and masks of "tengu," or mountain goblins. Tengu were believed to be master swordsmen capable of possessing human beings and forcing them to commit acts of violence. A samurai wearing a tengu mask was making a powerful statement about his ferocity as a warrior. However, the more elaborate and artistic tengu designs did not become common until the peaceful Edo period, when armor was made more for show than for utility.

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