Japanese Hannya Tattoos: Origins, Meanings & Ideas

Updated on May 5, 2020
P FOR PEONY profile image

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.


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 Ideas

Click thumbnail to view full-size

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

Pale or flesh-tone
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). | Source
Another modern mish-mash — Darth Maul x Hannya.
Another modern mish-mash — Darth Maul x Hannya. | Source

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

Interesting Fact

In Asian cultures, many tattooist don't fill in the eyes until the piece is near done (some simply leave it out completely due to spiritual beliefs).They believe that once you 'dot' the eye, the tattoo comes alive.

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 | Source

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.

Would you consider getting a Hannya tattoo?

See results

Questions & Answers

  • Do you have any meaning behind the oni mask?

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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!

  • Who is stronger, Hannya or Oni?

    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.

© 2015 Peony


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • P FOR PEONY profile imageAUTHOR


      3 months ago

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

    • profile image


      3 months ago

      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!

    • P FOR PEONY profile imageAUTHOR


      13 months ago

      @ 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!

    • profile image

      Daniel L 

      13 months ago

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

    • profile image

      Phil G 

      23 months ago

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

    • P FOR PEONY profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      @ 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.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

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

    • P FOR PEONY profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      @Sith Lord - You're right! Fixed.

    • profile image

      Sith Lord 

      2 years ago

      Its Darth Maul, not Darth Vader

    • P FOR PEONY profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

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

    • P FOR PEONY profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

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

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Hi, is this considered a demon tattoo?



    • profile image


      3 years ago

      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.

    • P FOR PEONY profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

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

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Wonderful and comprehensive overview of this art form.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, tatring.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)