As with many other cultures, masks were used in Japanese culture since ancient times for purposes of ritual and performance. The masks represented people, heroes, deities, devils, ghosts or animals. Archaeological evidence indicates masks have been used in Japan since as long ago as 10,000 B.C. The earliest masks were made of clay or cloth. Their purposes likely included use in magic rituals, religious dances, shamanistic ceremonies, medicinal treatments, funerals and as talismans.
The oldest extant masks of Japan are those used in gigaku, an ancient dance that, according to legend, arrived in Japan from Korea in the 7th Century. The dances were mimes and processionals that were in the form of a drama set to music. The gigaku mask covered the entire head and was most often made from wood. They had dramatic expressions carved upon their faces. Many of the masks had hair pasted on them, and they might represent a lion, bird, demon or superhuman creature.
Bugaku masks were worn as part of performances in traditional court music. The Bugaku performances were at the height of their popularity in the 9th Century. The first Bagaku masks were very naturalised but became more elaborate over time. The bugaku masks were traditionally made of cypress wood and covered just the face of the performer. The expressions were not as exaggerated as in the gigaku style.
The gyodo mask came into use about 792 to 1185 and was used in Buddhist processions at various events, such as the dedication of a new temple. The masks were designed to represent various Buddhist figures including deities, gods and demons. They were oversized, covering the entire face and more.
The noh mask was part of highly stylised noh theatre that began before the 14th Century in Japan. The masks are designed to change expressions based upon light and shadows, and about 80 different masks were necessary for a performance. Other masks might also be used. The noh masks, carved of wood, are smaller than the actor's face and have very small holes through which the actor can see.
Kyogen masks are similar to noh masks, except less serious. Most kyogen masks wear happy expressions or are extremely distorted. Kyogen is a type of comedy, and all the masks are designed to elicit laughter from the audience. While noh masks for a single performance may number in the hundreds, there are only 20 different types of masks in a Kyogen performance.