The beauty and craftsmanship behind Japanese Noh masks

I always thought I had a pretty good understanding of Japanese culture.  The thing is, I took Japanese in my final two years of high school, which means that while I can’t have a proper conversation with a Japanese person, I can write my first name in katakana (it’s エリカ).  I also know that there’s a pretty sweet tea ceremony thing that is part of Japanese culture – this information I gained from that scene in The Karate Kid sequel when Daniel has a cuppa with the Japanese chick from Mister Miyagi’s hometown.  I am also very much aware of the fact that there has to be more to the Japanese community’s contributions to Sydney than their excellent bowls of salmon teriyaki and the availability Choya liqueur (both of which I am now craving).

So, like I said, I always thought I had a pretty good understanding of Japanese culture.

And, like you can probably guess, what I thought was true was totally not true, not even a little bit.

I don’t know shit about the Japanese community in Sydney, nor do I know very much about anything Japanese at all.   Although, I probably should.  We have amazing Japanese-Australians representing us in fashion (Akira Isogawa), food (Tetsuya Wakuda) and entertainment (Yumi Stynes). Cripes, even the Australian Wagyu Association is the largest Wagyu beef breeding association outside Japan.  So why is it that the extent of my knowledge of anything Japanese is so limited?

Shadow and Light: The Craft of Noh Mask Carving

In an effort to find more Japanese experiences in Sydney, I headed to the Japan Foundation‘s HQ near Central Station for their exhibition, Shadow and Light: The Craft of Noh Mask Carving.  Running now until the 30th September, the exhibition features a selection of Noh masks carved, from Japanese cypress, by famed craftsman and artist, Hideta Kitazawa.  The exhibition will showcase a selection of Noh masks, as well as photographs of Noh performances, showing the masks used as they would be on stage.  The tools Kitazawa uses to create his masterpieces will also be on display. The night I visited, Kitazawa was also giving a mask making demonstration, with Noh performer and researcher Professor Richard Emmert of Musashino University, Tokyo.

What is Noh Theatre, anyway?

Here’s the Japan Foundation’s definition of Noh Theatre:

“Noh theatre is Japan’s oldest continuing theatre tradition, and is listed by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage. Sometimes described as Japanese opera, it is known for its rich symbolism, slow movement and highly stylised expression. Noh developed in Japan in the Middle Ages and arrived at its present form in the 14th century; Noh costume reflects the kind of dress worn by the nobility in Japan around this time. Arguably one of the most recognisable elements of Noh is its many masks, which are changed over the course of a performance to signify changes in a character’s emotional or psychological state. This exhibition builds a local interest in Noh, exemplified by the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Theatre of dreams, theatre of play exhibition 2014, and the inclusion of Noh theatre in the 2015—2017 HSC drama curriculum”.

Here’s an example of Noh Theatre in action, which I got off youtube (thanks to Gustavo Thomas‘s Youtube page):

I’m gonna be freakin’ honest with you, I’ve never seen a Noh performance/play, but that scared me a little.  Slightly.  A lot. 

Hideta Kitazawa’s craftsmanship and why I have a new respect for this artform

Maybe it was because I saw him carve a mask from a hunk of wood on stage, maybe it was because his passion and talent for what he does just couldn’t be contained, but Hideta Kitazawa really is a true artist and craftsman – his Noh masks are widely used by professional Noh and Kyogen performers.

Like his father Ikkyou Kitazawa before him, Hideta Kitazawa is also a woodcarving artist, and, for over 20 years, has been professionally carving in this way, often making his own tools as well.  His works have been internationally recognised, having won awards like the Outstanding Youth Artisan Award for Tokyo in 1997 and the Yokohama Noh Drama Hall Director’s Prize in 2003.  His hand-carved Shinto floats and portable shrines are used in festivals throughout Japan’s Kanto area.

Noh Mask Demonstration My Local World clip 1 from My Local World on Vimeo.

During my visit to the Japan Foundation, Kitazawa explained that he is probably one of the few remaining professional carvers left, and that most people in Japan do it now as a hobby (for people to do in their reitrement, he jokingly explained to the audience).  He explained that the younger generation don’t take it up now as a profession because there is not a lot of money in it.  I found this quite sad for two reasons: 1) that for something to be worthwhile pursuing, it had to be “profitable”, and 2) that I understood why it would be this way.  It makes me admire Kitazawa’s dedication to his craft even more, and I think of elements in Australian culture where professionalism and craftsmanship go hand in hand, but don’t have that same following as an industry. Nôgaku theatre is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, meaning it’s a cultural element worthy of preservation.  From the UNESCO site:

Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.

The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. The social and economic value of this transmission of knowledge is relevant for minority groups and for mainstream social groups within a State, and is as important for developing States as for developed ones.

I’m sorry, it was such a long quote but one I thought really relevant to Noh performing arts and theatre (and I hope I’m using that term and phrase correctly).

Making the masks

Kitazawa carves with the skill you would expect from a professional doing this for 20 years – with ease, expertise and a lot of technique.

No Mask Demonstration My Local World clip2 from My Local World on Vimeo.

I found this demonstration fascinating, as he turned a block of wood into the beginnings of a mask, pre-colour and painting.  There’s a certain way of working – sitting, holding the tools, concentration – that I find intriguing, particularly as all of my working hours are spent hunched over a computer keyboard.  I’m reminded of artists and craftspeople today who also work within the same set of structures, and I’m happy to have witnessed a small part of a cultural practice that has been around for many, many years.

From start to finish, Hideta Kitazawa's Noh mask

From start to finish, Hideta Kitazawa’s Noh mask

The masks are made individually, and the process takes about 3 weeks.  It’s therefore not the kind of item that would be made in bulk off a factory conveyor belt.  Each mask, although styled off a previous, similar mask, is not the same as any other because they are handmade.  Actors prefer this because they are made with time and care and spirit, and this spirit adds to the performance on stage.

The masks, whilst always seemingly holding one expression, are actually quite expressive, depending on the tilt you give them.  From one angle, they may appear one way, but with the tilt of the head of the actor they then take on a different expression, like malevolence, for example, so often seen in Noh theatre when depicting the supernatural.

Hideta Kitazawa’s exhibition is currently now on display until the 30th September at The Japan Foundation.  Here’s some of the masks that you will be able to see:


Hideta Kitazawa’s masks on exhibition, photographs by Sohta Kitazawa


Kitazawa’s masks will be used in the upcoming Noh play, in English, called Oppenheimer.  It tells the story of Robert J Oppenheimer, the ‘father’ of the atomic bomb, using the conventions of a traditional Japanese Noh play, and highlighting the tragedy of the bombing of Hiroshima, and how it affects us all.  All principal performers are Japanese professionals or members of the Japanese-American Noh troupe, Theatre Nohgaku.

Oppenheimer is presented by The Oppenheimer Project, an international theatre company that includes professional Japanese Noh actors and musicians, members of Theatre Nohgaku, and local musicians and dancers.

The performance will run on 30th September and 1st October at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.  Tickets can be purchased at


Featured image with photos taken by Sohta Kitazawa


  1. […] the latter part of 2015 I saw a demonstration of Noh Mask making at the Japan Foundation in Sydney.  Not only was it an interesting and thoughtful evening, it was […]

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