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Ancient Japanese Mask

World’s Oldest Japanese Mask Unearthed

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Archaeologists have unearthed a fragment of the oldest known Japanese mask at the Daifuku archaeological site in Japan. The finding suggests possible cultural links between this area of western Japan and China.

The fragment consists of the left side of what would have been a whole mask and is made of Japanese umbrella pine. It is 23 centimetres long and 7cm wide and contains an oval hold for the eye and a smaller hold which would have been for a strong for wearing the mask on the face. There are no artificial patterns or colours on its surface.

Japanese masks are part of a very old and highly sophisticated and stylized theatrical tradition. Although the roots are in prehistoric myths and cults they have developed into refined art forms. The oldest masks are the Gigaku, which were used for an ancient dance drama.  The people that would perform the shows were professional dancers who were accompanied by music. There are 14 different Gigaku masks, which were typically made out of materials such as clay, dry lacquer, cloth, paper, and wood.. All these masks are different because they cover the whole face as well as the ears. Hair was sometimes put on the masks for decoration with black outlines for facial features. Some masks were lion heads, bird- beaked creatures, demons, and super humans. A lot of the Gigaku masks were influenced India, Indonesia, and China

Until now, the oldest wooden mask in Japan, which was unearthed at the nearby Makimuku site, dates back to the third century. However, the latest fragment recovered in Daifuku dates to the latter half of the second century, making it the oldest known Japanese mask on Earth.  The areas around Daifuku and Makimuku are thought to have been ancient hubs for Japan-China interactions, include the transfer of ideas and goods. This suggests that the mask may have been influenced by cultural traditions in China.

Some experts compare the masks from both sites to the ones worn by fangxiangshi (magicians) mentioned in Zhouli, an ancient Chinese text describing the rites of the Zhou dynasty (12th century B.C.-256 B.C.). Exorcism rites involving fangxiangshi, in which a mask was worn on the face and a pike and a shield held in the hands, are said to be an origin of the demon-chasing rituals that continue to this day in Japan.

By April Holloway

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