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Gigaku masks (伎楽)

Buddhism was introduced to Japan somewhere around AD 538 while the Japanese Emperor Kimmei was in power. Coming from Korea and China, the new religion was mainly regarded as dangerous to the native and their already established Shinto religion. Therefore, many people opposed this process, but thanks to the great influence of the Soga clan which favored Buddhism, finally the emperor decided to defend the newly introduced religion by giving another view in terms of new cultural enrichment that this religion could bring in. About 40 years later, the Buddhism was officially established and the long existence of this system of belief was set to shape the Japanese society for the centuries to come. The establishment of Buddhism in Japanese society had great political and cultural importance. Very often through the course of Japanese history there were many turmoils and competitions for power, especially among the bigger family clans. Hence, buddhism contributed mainly politically for reconciliation among the clans. Culturally, the Buddhism with its well established intellectual postulates and hierarchical structure as well as religious answers on the afterlife that the native Shinto could not provide, greatly contributed to the Japanese society.

In addition, Buddhism brought the art of masked drama and dance — Gigaku (伎楽). Looking at the beauty of the dance, the unusual masks that originally were used in China and Korea attracted many Japanese people who travel abroad. They begun to recognize this tradition and brought Gigaku in Japan around 7th century AD. Philosophically speaking, masks are gates to the new, different identity. People were using masks since the very beginnings of the human civilization and very often they were part of important social and religious rituals. Some of them were used in the funeral ceremonies, even some were used as mediums to come closer to the gods. Lastly, masks preserved anonymity in the group, which straightened group’s interactions. Masks were present for a long time in the lives of the noblemen who belonged to the Imperial court.

Although the masks are the most impressive part of the Gigaku performance, it also includes music performed with Gakuso (a zither) and the Gakubiwa (a short-necked lute) introduced around 7th century from China. Later, few other instruments like wind instruments, percussion, and drums were added to the Gigaku arsenal of instruments.

Cover Photo Credit: austin tx – http://flic.kr/p/dk4UKp

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