The Face of a Guardian: From Buddhist Gate to Noh Theater

by: Nicole Bowers

Mask of Agyo, one of the two Nio Gate Guardians. NJSM# AE1977.9.21, Gift of Ms. Adeline Franzel.

This mask is designed after the Guardian or Deity masks following the Noh tradition of Theater. The face represents one of the two Japanese Buddhist Guardians of Nio or “Benevolent Kings” named Agyo, who is also known as Misshaku Kongo. It was created some time prior to 1977, when it was donated to the New Jersey State Museum’s Bureau of Archaeology and Ethnography. The mask had been purchased from a San Francisco Pawn Shop by Ms. Adeline Franzel, who donated her eclectic collection of twenty-seven masks, carved wooden heads, and other select items from various countries, upon her retirement in 1977.


The front of this papier-mâché mask presents a human-like visage baring six gritted teeth with drilled pupils and nose holes. This mask displays exaggerated features painted with orange, black, and a simple gold topknot. The reverse has an orange cording attached along either side. The inner back side of the mask is a sort of mesh painted black with two separate inscriptions, one in red and the other in black written in Kanji, which is a single character writing system borrowed from Chinese writing. The smaller inscription written in red has only two symbols readable as the third is too faded to be distinguished. The middle and last symbols read: National (kuni) and Treasure. Individually the three symbols of the black inscription read: Gold, Strong/Brave, and Mask. However, the first two symbols together represent kon-gou, a Buddhist teaching, roughly translating into: “The hardest is a kind of golden wear”.  This could refer, in some way, to one of the Sixteen Predictions of Buddha with the story ‘Golden Tray’ and King Pasenadis’ sixth dream.

Masks in Japan have been in use since the pre-modern period of Jomon (10,000 BCE-300 BCE). They represent a certain character in a performance: person, hero, demon, spirit, deity, and so forth. Masks are mostly made from some variety of clay, wood, dried lacquer, cloth or paper materials. There are seven different variations of Japanese Theater masks: Gigaku, Bugaku, Gyodo, Tsuina, Noh, Kyogen, and Kagura. The earliest form of Japanese masks is the Gigaku introduced in the mid-sixth century for

Mask of Agyo, one of the two Nio Gate Guardians. NJSM# AE1977.9.21, Gift of Ms. Adeline Franzel.

religious drama and tended to be larger than the succeeding masks. The Bugaku masks were used for stage performance with orchestra on either side and were a less realistic form with their moveable eyes and jaw. The Gyodo masks were used in outdoor ceremonies and pageantry of Buddhist temples by epitomizing the twelve Buddhist deities’ and twenty-eight different guardians. The Tsuina masks represented the devils, Oni, or frightening beings of the supernatural. The Noh masks, the style which is similar to NJSM’s mask, are the most popular and recognized category of mask; used a blending of recitation, chants, and ritual dance with the focus on Buddhist themes or concepts. The Kyogen mask is a genre of comedic and sarcastically themed theater on the daily life of the Muromachi Period. The final category of Japanese mask is the Kagura masks, which are more artistically free to interpretation.

Kanze Noh Theatre: Lion Dance from the play Shakkyo.

Prior to being performed in Japan, the origins of the Noh Theater mask can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618 AD-907 AD) in China. In the fourteenth century, the Noh masks were developed further under the patronage of a Shogun from the Ashikage family during the Muromachi Period (1335 AD-1573 AD). Mostly popular in elite circles, considered Esoteric akin to the ‘grand opera’, it was considered the only proper form of entertainment for the samurai and aristocratic classes during the eighteenth century. Typically created with lighter materials, so that they can be worn for longer periods of time and through complex staging, fashioning the awareness of highly developed forms to express every variable of emotion. Characterized with six sub-categories: Okina masks (Old-man), Fierce Deity masks (God/Demon and Open/Closed mouths), Male masks, Female masks, and Vengeful Spirit masks.

Koma inu (“Temple dog”) at Jinja (shrine) on Mount Takao, Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

The mask that was gifted to the New Jersey State Museum adopts the design of Japanese Buddhist Nio Guardians that are a form of Esoteric Buddhist guardian deities. Otherwise known as “the Benevolent Kings”, which descend from earlier versions from China, Tibet, and India. These guardians are thought to be related to the Chinese the Door Generals/Gods known as Marshals Ha and Heng, as keepers or sentinels to the gateways of the temples. In the native religious Japan the Lion Guardians (Komainu) and Fox guardians of Shinto shrines are considered to share a similar theme with the Buddhist Nio Guardians.

Japanese Buddhism arose as Chinese cultural influence and religious practices entered into Japan through the spread of the ‘way of Buddha’ by Buddhist missionaries. Even before the beginning of the Japanese Heian Period (794 AD-1185 AD), Chinese Buddhist beliefs and practices were very closely mixed with the native religion of Shinto, also known as ‘the way of kami (spirit)’. So much so, that in Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism became almost impossible to separate individually; shrines formally became places of devotion for both Buddhist and Shinto worship. This relation between the migration of cultural influences from the Asian continent into Japan, as well as influences of Shintoism and Buddhism within the Japanese nation, played a major role in the developmental history of culture, music, visual and performance arts. This can be seen in the changes of style and elaborations of different Japanese masks.

Map of the main modern Buddhist sects, source is Rupert Gethin’s the Foundations of Buddhism, pg xvi. Wikimedia Commons.

The Benevolent Kings are also represented in Tibet and India as two kings who were present in Hindu lore and in features from the Hindu divinity Indra, God of Thunder and Lightning. As Hinduism came about first, both Buddhism and Shinto guardians can trace their roots to this earlier era. Usually one of the Nio will hold a Vajra, a thunderbolt or dagger-shaped weapon. Arising from the Asian continent, this weapon comes from the Hindu divinity Indra, symbolizing a weapon that puts enemies of Buddhism to death and victorious power of the Law. Later, Buddha takes this lightning symbol to make the Buddhist emblem and brings together the points of the rays.

C399 & C398
Pair of Chinese Stone Buddhist Guardian statuettes (Tang Dynasty). Objects C399 and C398. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

In the Nio Guardians, we have symbolism embedded relating to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto dating back at least 2000 years. Introduced into Japan during the seventh or eighth centuries, traditionally these Japanese Nio Guardians come in pairs called the Kongo Rikishi, which stood guard outside Buddhist temple gates called the Nio-mon or Nio Gate. On the left stands Ungyo, or Naraen Kongo, named for the cosmic sounds of “un” or “om” meaning death; this guardian is a closed mouth figure to shelter and keep in good spirits. On the right stands Agyo or Misshaku Kongo, the guardian our mask represents, named for the cosmic sounds of “ah” or birth. The gritted teeth and aggressive expression of this opened mouth guardian figure deters demons and individuals with malicious intent from the gates. These guardians commonly have a very masculine portrayal; appearing furious or malevolent with great strength. However, they are very benign deities. Their hair was groomed in graceful knots, customarily held in place with hair ribbon or ornaments.

The portrayal of the Nio Guardians, Agyo and Ungyo, in mask form are very rare to see. In fact, they are not listed among the 60 basic types of Noh masks. The Nio Guardians are generally shown in their statue forms. The masks more commonly seen in museums are the demon (Oni), Old-men, and Female spirit masks. NJSM’s Nio mask which depicts the open-mouth guardian Agyo, was most likely intended for decoration purposes rather than actual performance. While light weight in composition, making it ideal for stage performance, there is no indication that the mask was ever in fact worn. The connecting orange cord attaching both sides of the mask, is probably too short to fit the head of an adult actor, although this could suggest that the mask might have been made for a child-sized actor. However, there are no signs of wear, leading us to conclude that this mask was intended for decoration. 


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