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The Wild Symbolism Behind Japanese Hannya Tattoos

If you’re intrigued by the terrifying and dark allure of Hannya mask tattoos, you’re not alone! Hannya masks have remained incredibly popular within all styles of tattooing thanks to their rich history and deep symbolism.

At first glance, you may assume that the Hannya mask only represents evil or demonic forces, but the underlying story of the Hannya is actually rife with sorrow and tragedy. If you have yet to explore the Hannya’s meaning, read along we unravel this mysterious symbol and review its historical use.

What is the Meaning of a Hannya Tattoo?

Traditionally, Hannya tattoos mainly symbolize a jealous woman in demon form, but they actually possess many meanings. Just as the design of the mask displays various emotions depending on the angle it’s viewed from, even surrounding motifs may give clues as to deeper meaning. Listed below are the most popular meanings behind Hannya mask tattoos.

Top Hannya Tattoo Meanings

Betrayal and Jealousy

One of the most common meanings behind Hannya mask tattoos is that they represent feminine anguish and rage. This interpretation stems from the historic usage of Hannya masks in Japanese performance art, like the noh and kyogen Japanese traditional theatre plays, and Shinto Kagura ritual dances. When a female character was deeply betrayed and found herself becoming obsessive or jealous, the Hannya mask was worn to showcase the internal change that had occurred, typically as a result of a husband’s infidelity or betrayal.

Good Luck

Another popular meaning behind Hannya tattoos is that they may be used as a symbol to promote good luck and ward off evil. In Japan, Hannya masks have been used throughout history as powerful talismans against negative energies, persons, and spirits. Whether hanging in the home or found on a keychain, Hannya masks are believed to protect their owners from misfortune and help generate beneficial circumstances.


The Japanese word Hannya means wisdom, so if you are hoping to achieve a higher perspective in matters of love and the heart, the traditional Japanese Hannya tattoo is an excellent choice.

Protection from the Past

The Hannya mask tattoo is said to provide protection against the past repeating itself. The Hannya mask can also be used to represent a painful or traumatic memory that haunts you, but which has also passed on a powerful lesson. In this way, Hannya tattoos can be used to symbolize overcoming difficult times in life, while protecting the wearer from enduring similar struggles again.

Unforgiving Person

The traditional Hannya tattoo has long been used by members of the Japanese Yakuza gang to symbolize that the wearer is unforgiving and without mercy.



When a Hannya mask tattoo is created using red ink it symbolizes the concept of pure evil. In traditional Japanese storytelling, if a woman’s Hannya mask turns red, it is used to showcase that she has completely given in to her dark side, fully transitioning into a demonic entity. People who wear the red Hannya tattoo may be trying to communicate that they have gone too far down a dark path.

Passionate Lover

The Hannya traditional tattoo can be used to represent a woman who is a passionate lover, possessing an all or nothing attitude in romantic relationships. It can also be used to signify a past failed relationship, unrequited love, or betrayal.

Hannya mask.

Judge of Good and Evil

The Hannya mask is the female version of the oni mask, which represents a traditional Japanese male demon. In the Buddhist religion, the oni are believed to originate from evil persons who have died and found themselves within the realms of hell. These truly evil persons are transformed into oni, creatures that take pleasure in punishing other evil humans through torture. According to the Buddhist belief, oni are only born from the most sadistic souls and those who are not quite as evil become the oni’s tortured prisoner in hell. Traditional Japanese folklore speaks of how the evilest humans sometimes transformed into oni while still alive, and that this occurrence is what lies behind some of the most shocking and terrible human behavior.

Tormented Souls

The Hannya begins as a woman who is drowning in sadness but ends as a demon who has been consumed by jealousy, bitterness, and resentment. This makes the Hannya mask tattoo a great symbol for unresolved pain or emotional instability.

Noh Theater

For those that love plays, or who work in the performing arts themselves, a Hannya tattoo may be a perfect way to represent your love for the traditional Japanese theatre, Noh. Full of drama as well as incredible costumes and character, a Noh mask will certainly have a powerful presence on your skin!

What is the Meaning of Hannya?

The word hHannya means wisdom or higher levels of consciousness according to Japanese Buddhism. The word Hannya is believed to have originated from the name Hannyabô after the artist who carved the original Hannya mask.

What is the Difference between Hannya and Oni?

Hannya masks differ from oni masks in that Hannya’s represents female demons in Japanese storytelling, while oni masks represent masculine demons.

Hannya’s are created when a woman is betrayed and overcome by emotions of jealousy, obsession, and sadness. When her heartache transforms into bitterness and resentment, the woman is said to lose herself and morph into a Hannya, or female demon.

In contrast, oni are created when purely evil men die and enter the realms of Buddhist hell. These thoroughly evil souls are transformed into creatures called oni who are violent and monstrous servants of Lord Enma, the ruler of hell. When humans die who are not quite as evil as the oni, the oni dole out their punishment in hell in the form of continuous physical torture.

Hannya backpiece

What is the Story of Hannya?

The story of the Hannya mask originates from Japanese noh and kyōgen theater shows, which were musical style plays that featured stories from Japanese folklore. The Hannya mask represents a woman’s descent from jealousy and sadness into bitterness and resentment, a process that is believed to transform a woman into a female demon, otherwise known as a Hannya.

In plays and performance art depicting scorned women, Hannya masks were used to represent when the character had lost control of herself and succumb to her anger and madness. Depending on the color of the mask used, the Hannya could represent different things. For example, a white Hannya mask denoted aristocratic status, while red represented a lower-class person or evil, and black or very dark shades signified a demon.

One of the most famous plays featuring the Hannya mask is the story of Prince Genji, a man who cheated on his wife with an obsessive and jealous mistress. When Prince Genji’s wife becomes pregnant he begins to ignore his mistress and attempts to cut ties with her. The mistress becomes overwhelmed with rage and jealousy and transforms into a demon. In her demonic state, the mistress possesses Prince Genji’s wife and eventually kills her.

Why Do People Get Hannya Tattoos?

Hannya mask tattoos can have many varied meanings depending on the wearer. Most view a Hannya tattoo design as a symbol of good luck, a talisman against evil and negativity, and a reminder to be wise in your romantic dealings. Outside of these meanings, people also use Irezumi Hannya tattoos as emblems of unresolved emotional pain, evil, and protection from the past.

Do Hannya Tattoos Have to be Japanese Style?

Though many love the look of traditional Irezumi style Hannya tattoos, it’s important to know that this design works well in a wide array of styles. Hannya black and grey tattoos have remained a popular selection, as well as Traditional style Hannya’s, Blackwork Hannya’s, painterly Neo-Traditional style Hannyas, and minimalist Hannyas.

Best Placements for Hannya Tattoos

Hannya Hand Tattoo

Hannya hand tattoos are an excellent choice for those interested in a powerful and high-visibility piece. The shape of the design works perfectly in the space of the hand and makes for a strong statement piece.

Hannya hand tattoo by Szymon Radzik #SzymonRadzik #hannya #hand #blackandgrey

Hannya Forearm Tattoo

Hannya forearm tattoos work perfectly as stand-alone pieces or as the beginning of Japanese tattoo sleeves!

Hannya Leg Tattoo

Hannya leg tattoos work wonderfully on the hip, thigh, calf, or ankle. Thanks to the space provided by the legs, Hannyas can easily be paired with additional design elements like the popular Hannya and snake tattoos, or geisha Hannya tattoo designs.

Hannya leg tattoo by japanese ink #japaneseink #hannya #tiger #leg #irezumi

Hannya Back Tattoo

For those interested in large-scale Hannya designs, Hannya back tattoos and Hannya full back pieces can be an ideal selection. Oftentimes elements like Japanese lettering, smoke, clouds, flowers, and snakes are incorporated into these detailed designs.

Hannya Chest Tattoo

Hannya chest tattoos are a great choice for those who would prefer a more large-scale, detail-oriented piece. Oni Hannya chest tattoos are also popular, as they work to represent both the male and female demons.

If you're interested in seeing more iconic Japanese designs, head over to our guide: The Mythological Creatures of Japanese Irezumi

Written byTattoodo

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