Japanese Magic Mirror

By Mike Sullivan

Magic mirrors can be first found in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD), by making a mirror out of bronze the craftsman could create a mirror surface but with a design cast in the bronze back. To any casual onlooker it appeared to be just a normal mirror, but if the mirror was used to reflect light onto an appropriate surface the design cast into the back would be projected onto the wall. There are a number of mentions of them over the centuries as the mirrors could be quite puzzling, especially if they were inherited and the secret behind whichever pattern had been cast was lost or not passed on to the new owner.

The appearance of magic mirrors in Japan

At some point in time the secret to making a magic mirror was passed to Japanese craftsmen, they became known as Makyoh (魔鏡) and are most famous for being used by Christians in Japan. Some of the oldest magic mirrors in Japan date back to the 3rd century and were found in a tomb in Aichi prefecture. One particular mirror features an engraving of wizards and creatures on the back which are then reflected onto a surface when light is shined on the mirror’s front.

Japanese magic mirrors and Christianity

With the arrival of the first Western Europeans in Japan in the sixteenth century the religion of Christianity also made its appearance, this was aided by missionaries who came to Japan for the specific purpose of gaining converts. This was initially tolerated by the Shogunate but over time suspicions started to be raised about Japanese converts who took on new European names and who started to stand out from the traditional classes of Japan. In the seventeenth century the Shogunate started to persecute Christians, when several uprisings took place it started to be perceived that Christianity was a danger to public order and this culminated in the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637 which consisted of mostly Christians. The rebellion was swiftly suppressed and Christianity was prohibited, and just before the rebellion in 1635 Japan was closed to foreigners. This state of affairs would persist until the 19th century.

The secret use of Japanese magic mirrors

In the wake of Christianity being prohibited those who refused to renounce their faith had to practise their religion in secret. To help identify one another they would incorporate icons in secret items such as latterns and also in magic mirrors. They were very useful as they looked just like any other mirror, but at the appropriate moment they could shine light on their mirror in order to project an image of the Cross or of Jesus which they could then use for worship.

How to make a Japanese magic mirror

The mirror itself is made by making a mold and casting metal, the image is then etched or engraved onto the metal surface and then covered with plating. This is then polished until no imperfections can be seen by the naked eye; the complicated aspect of making the mirror is that unevenness on the surface allows the pattern underneath to be projected when light is shined on the front.

Replicas of ancient mirrors found in Aichi prefecture are scheduled to go on display at the Takaoka Art Museum in Toyama Prefecture between June 28 and Aug. 31.


Michael Sullivan

Michael Sullivan is the editor for the online magazine and is responsible for bringing together the great content that we offer our readers. He can normally be found writing for several UK and Japanese magazines, as well as working as a translator.