Wooden shishi mask
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,
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.