These Expressive Masks Are the Emojis of Ancient Japan

Ancient masks from Asia

All images courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Following the example of countless museums before them, the Freer and Sackler galleries of the Smithsonian's Museums of Asian Art kicked off 2015 by releasing more than 40,000 images of artifacts online for public viewing and non-commercial use.

The database, OpenF|S, includes ceramics, jewelry, textiles, books, weapons, miniatures and much more — all of the items originating from various cultures in Asia.

"We hope that by releasing this information, we will encourage others to join our journey of discovery and help us fill in the gaps, share stories, and think of new ways to envision and enliven these objects," writes Courtney O'Callaghan, chief digital officer at the The Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art.

One of the most fascinating collections offered up by the museum are the Japanese masks, which were used predominantly for entertainment but also for religious reasons.

As you sift through this collection of uncanny disguises housed at the museum, you quickly begin to notice something.

Their centuries-old faces — many of them carved and painted for use in traditional Noh theater performances — may be motionless, but their theatrical expressions are quite timeless, especially if our contemporary use of "emojis" is any indication.

Unless you live under a rock, you're likely aware of the role of emojis in the internet space. Although these quirky character sets are now available on many phones due to their incorporation into Unicode a few years back, for a long time, emojis were only available on carriers in Japan.

Japan is where emojis were first created and developed, which is why a sizeable chunk of the tiny pictographs are tied to Japanese culture, including the ramen bowl

Ramen bowl emoji

, onigiri

, and the Japanese flag

Japanese flag

. There are even two emojis that specifically depict famous masks common in Japan:

Demon emojis

Continue below to view a collection of these ancient masks, each with a side note about the contemporary emoji that could be considered a counterpart:

Ancient beshimi mask
Pissed off emoji

Beshimi demon mask, Edo period (1603-1868)

Ancient demon mask
Long-nosed demon emoji

This mask, which was crafted sometime in the Momoyama period (1568-1603) or Edo period, depicts the face of a Tengu, a bird-like supernatural being that is characterized by an oddly long nose.

Ancient hyottoko mask from the 17th or 18th century
Winky emoji

This Edo period mask depicts Hyottoko, a mythical character whose story originates in Iwate Prefecture.

Ancient wood mask from the 17th century
Hairy demon emoji

This demon mask, crafted during the Edo period, is embellished with paint and hair.

Ancient ko-omote mask
ko-omote

This "ko-omote" mask from the Edo period is supposed to convey the beauty of a young girl in Noh performances.

Ancient okina no mask
Smiley emoji

This Okina mask is meant to depict an wise old man and was crafted sometime in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) or the Muromachi period (133-1573).

Ancient Oto mask
Smooching emoji

This Oto-type mask is used in Kyogen performances, which is a comic theater tradition that developed around the same time as the Noh tradition.

Ancient no performance mask
Angry purple demon emoji

This mighty demon mask, used in Noh performances during the Muromachi period, is embellished with gilded metal to distance it from human characters.

Ancient jo no mask
Shocked emoji

This Jo-type Noh mask, made with wood and colored pigment, dates back to either the Momoyama period (1573-1615) or Edo period (1615-1868).

Ancient gyodo mask
Throwing shade emoji

Unlike the theater-related masks in this list, this Gyodo mask is used in Japanese Buddhist ceremonies. Crafted with gesso and pigment, it dates back to the 17th century or possibly earlier.

Ancient realistic Japanese mask
Neutral face

Crafted by artist Kano Tessai (1845-1925), this wooden mask was decorated with gesso and colored pigments, which are now chipping off.

* * * Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network.