East Asia

Could be controversial


Q:  Here is what I assume is an antique, turn-of-the-century, racist, decorative mask from Japan. Just like Black Americana pokes fun at ethnic features, so does this mask. Beyond what might be the typical big lips, the creator went further to highlight nose-hairs, and crooked eyes to boot. The nose appears wider and more broad than an Asian feature, and in that way, also seems to strongly suggest Black heritage. Uniquely signed on the reverse in two colors… I’ve yet to find a translator. Its made of a hardwood, and appears to have aged patina within its shellac coating. Its a bit smaller than a typical mask… and fits my 4 year old son perfectly. The Japanese love to highly nature wood grain, the fact that this mask as a dark, almost black, seems to further attest to its original intent. I am an advocate to protect and preserve, items like these as a reminder not to repeat history. If not turn-of-the-century, there is a highly likelihood that this mask is from a war time era, ca1930s, where there was a heighten fear of foreigners.  Nate, 711

A:  This mask could go viral! It reminds me of the Elvis Presley mask made by a Chewa carver in Malawi, Central Africa, which you can see at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. This is an ethnographic mask that people would certainly talk about. But before you can give or sell it to an important museum, more research is needed. I would start with the two-color calligraphy on the rear. What does it say? Does the type script suggest a particular time period? I hope that some of the Asia art collectors will offer a few comments as well. For a Japanese wood carving it is of below normal quality, perhaps something made to sell at a low price.


  • adam

    It’s a version of a Hyottoko mask from traditional dance and theatre,
    It doesn’t depict an African person, but a Japanese one (the character is oafish and comedic).

    • Bob Ibold

      Thanks for your comment, Adam. I think you’re right. The Hyottoko character has a distorted face with pursed lips through which he blows fire or smoke. On this one the skin color is dark and the lips are very long, making it unusual in style. This piece would especially interest collectors of Hyottoko and Okame (or Otafuku) masks. Bob

  • Nate

    By the way, I am still torn on this one. I’ve foudn examples on other Hyottokos with nose hair present. I’ve yet to find a Hyottoko example that was anywhere near this dark in color. Also, all the Hyottoko examples I’ve noted have a very uniquly curved lip in its smoke-blowing. This one, is odd in its straight-out, trumped style of lips. I’d have to say I still lean more towards this being a race-driven piece. I’ve yet to hear back from a Japanese friend on what the inscription says.Can adam tell us what the inscription reads?

  • Nate

    My Japanese friend believes that the inscription on the back of the mask is the artisan’s
    and is “HOU-UN”. As a native of Japan, he stated that Hyottokos come in various colors…

    I guess what we have here is an unusual, creative take on a Hyottoko.

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