Wooden shishi mask

From Japan
Kamakura period, 13th century AD

This rare early surviving example of a lion mask is from the Kamakura period (1185-1333). The vigour of the chisel-work and symmetry of the curled hair are characteristic of sculpture of the period.

Depictions of the lion and the lion dance arrived in Japan together with Buddhism around the seventh century AD. As lions were not indigenous to Japan, at first representations were based on those of Tang dynasty China. Gradually, however, the lion, or shishi, developed a uniquely Japanese appearance. The mask with a textile body was worn or carried by one or more performers leading Buddhist gyōdo processions to exorcise evil along the route. Various lion dances involving masks have been used in all forms of drama since then, including Bugaku, Gigaku, Nō, Kabuki, and especially kagura festivals.

New Year celebrations in particular involved a lion-dance (dai-kagura) to dispel misfortune and sometimes involving fire-preventive rituals. A form of the shishi dance was also performed by the yamabushi, adherents of the syncretic form of Shintō and Buddhism called Shugendō, practised in the mountains of Dewa province (present-day Yamagata and Akita prefectures).

Like the other kagura masks, the shishi is sometimes placed in a ritual position and remains static during the ceremony in which it becomes occupied by the deity of the shrine. Notable features of the shishi mask include a prominent nose, moveable lower jaw, a mane lying forward over the head, and very small ears.

Find in the collection online

More information



Museum number

Asia JA 1999.12-19.87

not found on MERLIN

Gift of Mr. Nobutaka Oka


Find in the collection online

Search highlights

There are over 4,000 highlight objects to explore