My Two Favorite, Mysterious Japanese Masks, Hyottoko (ひょっとこ) and Okame (おかめ)

Is it me? Or does Japan makes some of the coolest masks ever? When I went to Asakusa a few weeks ago before checking out the Blue Man Group Tokyo show. I walked into one of the local stores and saw many different types of Daruma dolls (much more expensive than the tiny one I have). My favorite display in the store, though, was the mask display. hanging on the wall, were two wonderful interpretations of my two favorite Japanese masks.

The one on the left is Hyottoko, ひょっとこ, probably the strangest-looking Japanese mask I’ve ever seen. I’m surprised nobody’s used this mask for any type of slasher movie. So, maybe it isn’t as creepy as a silent man in hockey mask. Or maybe he’s not as horrifying as another silent, chalky-white man with dark, empty eyes and a bad perm (I can’t be the only one who noticed he has a bad perm). Or maybe he’s not as horrifying as that guy whose face is all burnt who seems to be just a bit too happy about killing people. But I think Hyottoko would be disturbing enough to strike fear in somebody walking alone in a dark alley, wouldn’t you say?

I always wondered, “Why does Hyottoko’s face always look so distorted?” According to one of my teachers at school, Hyottoko is blowing fires with a pipe. But why does he blow fire? Why is his mask so popular? I couldn’t make out the entire story that Yamaguchi Sensei was telling me in Japanese, so I know I’m gonna have to try again. I am determined to hear the story behind my favorite Japanese mask. Yamaguchi Sensei also was telling me that there is a special dance that people sometimes do at Japanese festivals while wearing these masks with scarves, but I haven’t seen it yet. When I do, I hope I get a chance to film it.

The second mask, okame (おかめ), is even more of a mystery to me because I couldn’t find anyone who could give me any kind info about it (at least not yet anyway). I showed the picture to several different Japanese natives and the first thing I heard them say, is okame, おかめ. When I asked about more details, people looked a bit uncertain…it was interesting. A couple of people mentioned that could possibly be a type of Noh* (のう or 能)mask or Nohgaku (のうがくor 能楽) mask, but they weren’t exactly sure.
*Noh is a traditional type of Japanese drama.

Sometimes I REALLY want to know the answers to things, or find out just a little more about a custom or item here in Japan. This is part of the reason I am trying so hard to improve my reading abilities. If I could read easily, I could go to a public library and figure out anything I wanted to know on my own. But at the same time, asking people questions is a great way to foster relationships with Japanese people, practice my Japanese, and make some new friends in the process. So as my reading improves, I’ll probably use both methods.

For now, it’s kind of cool that these masks have just a wee bit of mystery enshrouding them, and that many people I talked to don’t know the full story exactly.

If you do know anything about either of these masks, please feel free to use the comments section. I’m curious to know.

See you next time,

Donald Ash

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  • Alana Green

    The hyottoko mask was used in Death Note. It was both creepy and funny. I heard this mask was used at festivals to “make children laugh.”

    • Anthony

      Funny you mentioned that because they used that mask in Samurai Champloo as well. Glad Donald was nice enough to shed some light on it, one of the reasons his blog is awesome.

  • Ami Skanberg Dahlstedt

    This is a popular couple with very long history. You can see them in Kyogen, the funny theatre connected with Noh. Okame is considered the beauty of all beauties. In Heian period this kind of happy plump face was the most beautiful. I also hear she is connected with Ame no Uzume, the Godess of mirth. I have also seen these faces in Korean traditional theatre, but I don´t know the names. Good luck!

  • Ami Skanberg Dahlstedt

    This is a danncefestival with those characters:

  • General Elektrik


    This Japanese Mask has two names, Otafuku and Okame.
    Otafuku literally means “Much Good Fortune”, and Okame means “Tortoise”,
    also a lucky symbol for long life. Otafuku represents a lovely, always
    smiling Japanese woman who brings happiness and good fortune to any man
    she marries. She is also known as the Goddess of Mirth.

    • Donald Ash

      I really appreciate that. You just taught me something new today.

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