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Japanese Hannya Tattoos: Origins, Meanings & Ideas

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Peony is a tattooed tattoo enthusiast who loves studying and discussing tattoo history and meanings. Japanese themes are her favorite.

Japanese Mask Tattoo

The Hannya is undisputedly one of the more popular subjects used in Japanese-themed tattoos. Designed with devil's horns, somber eyes, and a wide mouth, the mask looks terrifying, formidable, and full of character. Veiled behind that sinister sneer is a fascinating backstory and a couple of interesting tidbits you may not have known.

Hannya cherry blossoms tattoo

Hannya cherry blossoms tattoo

Hannya Mask Meaning

Note: The Hannya is sometimes confused with oni mask tattoos and kabuki theater face painting.

History

The Hannya mask is used in Japanese noh and kyōgen theater shows (classical musical performances based on Japanese folklore and the supernatural). The mask represents a tormented female demon overtaken by jealousy and contempt. One of the most popular plays that utilized the Hannya mask tells the story of Prince Genji, who was married to Lady Aoi but had a mistress named Lady Rokujo. When his wife became pregnant, Prince Genji started to ignore Lady Rokujo. As a result, Lady Rokujo turns into a immensely jealous woman and is overcome with violent anger. With blinding rage, she transforms into a demon and possesses the wife and kills her.

Origin of the word "Hannya"

The word Hannya is thought to have come from the artist, Hannyabô, who carved this wooden mask. The design is believed to have been adapted from earlier serpent masks. Another theory is that “Hannya” comes from the word “Paññā/Prajñā” (般若), which means "wisdom" or "higher consciousness" in Japanese Buddhism.

Hannya mask on Noh performer

Hannya mask on Noh performer

Hannya Mask Tattoo Meaning

Because the mask was traditionally designed to change expressions depending on the angle at which it was viewed, a Hannya tattoo design could represent the different stages of emotion.

  • Anger, Jealousy, Resentment: A Hannya tattoo may indicate that the wearer is unforgiving. It is for this reason that the tattoo is so popular among the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). A Yakuza member who wears this wants people to know that he shows no mercy and is a formidable force to be reckoned with.
  • Pure Evil: If the mask is painted red, it indicates that the woman has lost control of herself and has turned into a demon completely. Someone who sports a red Hannya mask tattoo has probably gone too far over to the dark side.
  • Passion and Love: The Hannya represents a woman that is overcome with intense and passionate emotions associated with love. The wearer might have had a history of unrequited love or betrayal. A Hannya tattoo could also represent someone who tends to give all of herself in a romantic relationship—all or nothing.
  • Good Luck: In traditional Japanese culture, the Hannya symbol is used as a talisman to scare and ward off evil spirits and to bring good luck. Some superstitious people carry around a miniature Hannya mask on a keychain for protection, so getting a permanent Hannya tattoo on your body is a convenient way to take this talisman with you wherever you go.
  • Judge of Good and Evil: The Hannya is the female version of the Oni (male demon). In Japanese folklore, the Oni punishes people by spreading disease. This may explain why the Hannya mask tattoo is popular among yakuza gang members as they often punish their enemies.
  • Wisdom: Because the word Hannya is a Japanese term for "wisdom," hannya mask tattoos are a reminder to the wearer to be prudent in their romantic relationships.
  • Tormented Female Spirit: The Hannya is a symbol of the human struggle between good and bad—the Hannya is sad but becomes evil when she lets her sadness turn into resentful anger. The mask could be a representation of a woman who is perpetually haunted by emotional conflict.
  • Haunted Past: If you have a memory that haunts you but serves as a valuable lesson, the Hannya tattoo could be a representation of that. Some people also believe that the Hannya could prevent the past from repeating itself. The tattoo could also symbolize a difficult and emotional period in your past that you have conquered.
  • Theater: A performer of traditional Japanese plays might get this tattoo to symbolize their profession and love for theater and Japanese culture.

Hannya Tattoo Colors and Their Meanings

You might have seen the Japanese Hannya mask in different colors.

Color Intensity

One belief is that the deeper the color of a Hannya mask, the angrier or more malicious it’s supposed to be.

  • A Hannya mask with a lighter complexion means that the wearer is not yet a demon. The horns are usually smaller too. A lighter-colored Hannya tattoo means that the wearer is still human but is experiencing turmoil beneath the surface.
  • A darker red represents someone who has already been through a hellish emotional past.
  • A deep dark red is symbolic of someone who is filled with rage and is out for vengeance.

Personally, I don't think the Hannya mask should be limited to just traditional colors. I've seen designs that range from the original white and red to blue, purple, green, yellow, black, or any other hue. The most important thing is that the tattoo conveys the intended mood and fits with the general colors used in the whole tattoo.

Color and Social Hierarchy

If you want a more traditional Hannya tattoo, then the colors can represent social rank.

Tattooist: Dmitriy Samohin

Tattooist: Dmitriy Samohin

Hannya Mask Colors and Meaning

ColorStatus

Pale or flesh-tone

Aristocrat/noble

Forehead white; rest of face red

Lower class/commoner

Completely red

True demon/never human

The modern Hannya uses colors like turquoise, lime green, purple, and pinks. This particular design is a modern interpretation of a Hannya (looks like a Dracula-meets-Hellboy).

The modern Hannya uses colors like turquoise, lime green, purple, and pinks. This particular design is a modern interpretation of a Hannya (looks like a Dracula-meets-Hellboy).

Another modern mish-mash — Darth Maul x Hannya.

Another modern mish-mash — Darth Maul x Hannya.

Design Ideas for Hannya Tattoos and Their Significance

Regardless of where your preferred placement is, be it a sleeve tattoo, a back piece, a calf tattoo, or a hikae tattoo, figuring out the complexity of the design will determine the size you should allocate for your ink. To have a very elaborate Hannya tattoo on a small area might cramp the overall design with too many things.

Plan for the components you want and your artist should do the layout for you.

  • Tidal Waves: Like the Hannya, waves are unpredictable. Both the Hannya and the wave can be destructive, but they can also have moments of calm solitude.
  • Chrysanthemums: Flowers are popular designs that are often incorporated into tattoos of this Japanese devil mask. Because this flower blooms in fall, and fall is the season of change, a Hannya chrysanthemum tattoo represents an anguished person who desires to escape their emotional state.
  • Sakuras/Cherry Blossom: Cherry blossoms represent life after death or illness. A Hannya cherry blossom tattoo is symbolic of achieving a better life after dealing with a tormented past.
  • Maple Leaves: Leaves are symbolic of the cycle of life. The maple leaves and the mask could represent someone with an emotional past who hopes for a better future.
  • Snake: This one is popular with the yakuza. In Japanese culture, the snake represents good luck and protection. In Ancient Japanese culture, the snake represented immortality. Hence, a snake Hannya mask tattoo could be a symbol of good luck, or it could mean that the wearer's rage will never die.
  • Skull: The skull is a positive representation of the life cycle. It is usually used to honor the dead. It could also represent the underworld and a demonic life.
  • Koi: Because the koi swims upstream, this fish represents bravery, strength, and determination. Portrayed positively, a Hannya koi tattoo symbolizes bravery in the face of situations that may cause one to become jealous and vengeful. In a more negative light, the koi and Hannya mask could be a sign that the wearer is determined to wreak havoc.
  • Dragon: In Oriental culture, the dragon is a benevolent creature that uses its strength to do good. A dragon tattoo with a Hannya mask symbolizes the struggle between using your power for hateful vengeance and using it to do good.
  • Geisha: The geisha represents feminine power and intrigue. She is an enigmatic entertainment figure and can only be appreciated by certain people; thus she also represents someone who is unattainable. A Hannya mask and geisha tattoo represents a woman who is emotionally complex and unreachable. On a man, this combination could represent a woman in the man's life who has similar traits.
  • Samurai: The samurai is a symbol of strength and discipline, while the Hannya is a symbol of uncontrolled behavior. This is a fascinating contrast of concepts for a tattoo and could represent the eternal struggle between restrained and mindful thinking and untethered emotions that can cause harm.
Hannya girl tattoo by _suzani on IG

Hannya girl tattoo by _suzani on IG

White-faced Hannya tattoo on Majima Goro (from the game "Yakuza")

White-faced Hannya tattoo on Majima Goro (from the game "Yakuza")

Hannya Tattoo Styles

Besides traditional Hannya tattoos, which follow the irezumi style, many tattooists are injecting their personal twist. An example shown below preserves many of the Hannya masks' characteristics but also blends the illustrative style of Brothers Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Hannya sleeve tattoo design

Hannya sleeve tattoo design

Oni Mask Tattoo vs. Hannya Mask Tattoo

There is some confusion as to the difference between these two Japanese mask tattoos. Both are used in traditional Japanese theater, but the difference is:

  • The oni mask represents a male demon.
  • The hannya mask represents a female demon.

What Does a Hannya Mask Look Like?

The Hannya mask is a compelling sight of disheveled hair, two sharp horns piercing through the temples, huge bulbous eyes, and fangs showing from a gaping mouth split ear to ear. It is the perfect imagery of evil.

In noh theater, the contorted serpent face is to represent demonic feminine jealousy, with the Hannya meaning to show a "half demonic phase", to be followed by a "true serpent" or Shinja (真蛇; 真 - real 蛇 - snake).

Although the mask features a seemingly perpetual scowl, when viewed at different angles, the Hannya shows varied humanized expressions.

  • From the front, it looks menacing and filled with hatred.
  • Tilted at an angle and viewed from the top, it appears forlorn and anguished—almost crying.

These array of emotions reflect the complexities of the human psyche.

The oldest Hannya mask dates back to the 1550s.

The oldest Hannya mask dates back to the 1550s.

The Hannya Mask in Modern Culture

  • Yoshimitsu, from the game Tekken, wears a Hannya mask.
  • In Naruto, the Prajñā Group (Hannya Black Ops) is a part of the Anbu of the Land of Woods. They were eventually annihilated after they betrayed Konona-nin.

Geisha and Hannya Tattoo

Another way tattoo artists are getting creative is by merging the skull or a woman's face to the Hannya mask.

Another way tattoo artists are getting creative is by merging the skull or a woman's face to the Hannya mask.

The Story of Hannya and Unrequited Love

Legend has it that the Hannya was a beautiful woman who morphed into a grotesque demon due to jealousy, hatred, and vengeance. As they say, "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."

The most common story is that of a beautiful lady, Kiyohime, who fell deeply in love with a monk. Because she was unable to receive love in return, her heartbreak and negative emotions transformed and contorted her expressions into scary and exaggerated forms. Her painful expression portrayed both rage and misery. The monk was so frightened by her face that he ran towards a shrine and hid under a large prayer bell, which further infuriated the Hannya.

When she found him cowering underneath the bell, she blew fire at it, effectively melting it and burning her lover alive. Her action sealed her own fate as a demon.

japanese-hannya-tattoos-concise-info-on-the-origins-meanings-ideas

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Questions & Answers

Question: What are the ropes on the sides of the Hennya mask? Is it used to tighten the mask?

Answer: The string — sometimes with a tassel attached at the end — is used to tie the Hannya mask around the actor's head in Noh performances. Not all tattoos include the string and it's appearance is in reference to its theatrical association.

Question: Who is stronger, Hannya or Oni?

Answer: In all honestly, it's never crossed my mind to research that. So I don't have an answer for you, sorry! It would be cool to see a duel though.

Question: Would a tattoo of a broken Hannya mask mean bad luck or control over jealousy?

Answer: To preface: the Hannya mask is a paradox, it is often both positively and negatively associated. This duality means that it can be seen as a good luck totem, but also as evil itself. Another example: a Hannya tattoo can symbolize Prajñā/enlightenment—which transcends the "mundane" mind and talks of awareness and your higher self, but conversely, it can also symbolize "earthly" (aka mundane) human emotions and the lack of discipline to control or release them (jealousy, rage, wrath etc.) The complete opposite of enlightenment.

So to answer your question, it can simply mean either or even both. Yes, it can be seen as bad thing, because it's a lucky totem that broke. Yes, it can be good too, because it shows wisdom over a complex emotion.

My article highlights the many variations and interpretations of the meaning of a Hannya tattoo, however, a tattoo is ultimately, a very personal thing. It's up to you to apply what resonates with your heart the most, I really hope that helped you decide!

Question: Do you have any meaning behind the oni mask?

Answer: Depends on the type of Oni. Oni can mean to represent a male devil, OR demons—as a collective term (just like how yōkai encompasses ghosts, demons and monsters). And there are tons of different kinds of Oni in various shapes and forms, such as: animal-like, trolls and ogres to name a few. If specifically talking about masks, depending on the character, some Oni masks are even considered to be "Gods" beyond demons and used to scare off -other- lesser demons (kind of like an anti-hero). I don't have an article dedicated to Oni yet but may do so in future as there are too many types to cover.

© 2015 Peony

Comments

Peony (author) on April 10, 2020:

@ OkieDokieSmokie - Thank you very much, I'm happy that you thought so!

OkieDokieSmokie on April 05, 2020:

So I actually came here to learn more about the Hannya tattoos due to the Yakuza video game - a character has one. This was great information, thank you!

Peony (author) on May 30, 2019:

@ Phil G - That sounds like a special combination! Thank you, I hope my article helped you in some way.

@ Daniel L - Thanks! I'm so glad you liked it, happy inking!

Daniel L on May 29, 2019:

Very very interesting read, liked how you went in depth in the explanations. I’m considering adding a hannya myself.

Phil G on July 29, 2018:

Great article, just got an upper sleeve of a black upstream koi, need to complete the sleeve with a mask

Peony (author) on June 23, 2018:

@ Anahi - The string — sometimes with a tassel attached at the end — is used to tie the Hannya mask around the actor's head in Noh performances. Not all tattoos include the string and it's appearance is in reference to its theatrical association.

Anahi on June 23, 2018:

What does the string mean? It is sometimes blurb or red and it’s always behind the hannya mask or warped around.

Peony (author) on June 10, 2018:

@Sith Lord - You're right! Fixed.

Sith Lord on June 10, 2018:

Its Darth Maul, not Darth Vader

Peony (author) on October 22, 2017:

@ BaelRathLian - Glad that you did! Unlike nautical tattoos, I personally don't think there's any special meaning with regards to the tattoo placement.

Peony (author) on October 22, 2017:

@ L.M. - Hi! Yes, this would be considered to be one — the Hannya is pretty much a female demon.

L.M. on October 22, 2017:

Hi, is this considered a demon tattoo?

Thanks,

lm

BaelRathLian on August 09, 2016:

Loved the article. I am wondering also if it has any meaning with the location you put it? I mean other than the details put into it.

Peony (author) on October 30, 2015:

@ Larry Rankin — Thank you! Glad you felt so.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on October 29, 2015:

Wonderful and comprehensive overview of this art form.