Incredibly, this wooden mask survived virtually intact since it was carved from evergreen oak around the first half of the third century, which spans the late Yayoi Pottery Culture 彌生文化 (ca 300BC-ca 300AD) to early Kofun 古墳 periods.
The mask, which was excavated from the Makimuku ruins in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture, is the oldest found in this country, the city's board of education said Wednesday. (HIROYUKI YAMAMOTO/ THE ASAHI SHIMBUN)
Unearthed mask leads us to ponder roles in life
I was drawn to the photo of an old mask that appeared in the morning paper on Sept. 27. Unearthed from the Makimuku ruins in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture, it was the oldest wooden mask yet discovered in Japan.
It was hard to tell if this mask, awoken from its long sleep, so to speak, was smiling or weeping. But I could imagine the fragrance of very old wood clinging to it after being buried for centuries.
Believed to date back to the early third century, the mask is thought to be about 400 years older than any other found to date.
The Makimuku ruins are in an area believed to have been part of the ancient kingdom of Yamataikoku, the exact location of which remains under debate. Adding to the excitement for history buffs, the age of the mask coincides with the reign of the female Yamataikoku ruler, Himiko.
About the size of a human face, the mask appears to have been fashioned from an oak plank that was probably meant to be the blade of a hoe. There is a faint trace of red pigment on it.
It was probably held by hand during ritual harvest dances. Perhaps ancient shamans used this mask to commune with nature.
The Latin word "persona" originally referred to a mask worn by actors in drama. The word "person" is derived from it.
By switching face masks, one can shed one's identity and take on a different character, whether hero or beast.
Even without a mask, people today act out multiple roles in their everyday lives. For a man, those roles may include being a husband, father, boss or underling at work--and even perhaps "king of karaoke" at night.
The Asahi Shimbun ran this tanka poem by the female poet Mutsuko Ishii in its Asahi Kadan section:
"Cutting my hair equals giving up my love for you/ Here I am, wearing my mask of triumph." This poem perhaps shows how changing one's appearance can help one change one's life.
In our complex era, we all need more than two or three "masks." We have to switch them adroitly to get on in the world, but sometimes this is at the expense of forgetting who we really are.
In contrast, the nation's oldest, just-unearthed mask has a tremendous presence. Small wonder it made everyone in the land feel happier.
Those who once held it in their hands must have been a simple people, and I doubt that they ever wavered in their understanding of exactly who they were.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 29(IHT/Asahi: October 8,2007)