This miniature shishi-gashira, or lion's mask, is called a yumijishi. The mask is painted wood, with a red background, gold eyes and teeth, and black ears and accents. There are white feathers attached to its head. There is a piece of purple and white cotton fabric attached to back of head, to hide the hand of the person operating the mask. A bent strip of metal is attached to the back of head, and when squeezed together the lion's mouth opens and its ears droop (an elastic string is attached to the ears and the lower lip is hinged). Lion masks were originally made by woodworking artisans who used saw dust, wood shavings, and rice paste. Contemporary masks also use wheat and rice choff, but use a better bonding paste than rice.
Lion maks are worn during lion dances (shishi-mai), an event in local festivals performed throughout Japan for centuries. Lion dances and masks are also featured in traditional theatre. This small version is worn like a hand puppet and simulates the fearsome snapping of the jaws of the large masks worn for festivals. Yumijishi translates to "bow lion" because it is maniulated with the bent bamboo spring shaped like a bow.
Shishi (or jishi) is translated as "lion," but can also refer to a deer or dog with magical properties and the power to repel evil spirits. A pair of shishi traditionally stand guard outside the gates of Japanese Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. In Japan, the shishi-mai (lion dance) is often seen at shrine festivals and at New Year's. A shishi-gashira, or lion's head, is the headdress worn by the performers. Shishi masks take on many forms, some with horns, others resembling a dog, a deer, or a lion. This dance was probably introduced to Japan around the 8th century from China. Shishi-mai dances became widespread in Japan thereafter as both a form of festival entertainment and as a means to ward off evil spirits, to pray for peace, bountiful harvests, and good health. They are also used in No theater.