Famous Yokai from Japanese Folklore, the Oni were and still are very present in Japanese minds today in 2021 with their rich past of history and myths. First seen as friendly at the beginning, Oni are the most notorious evil creatures from ancient Japan and very popular among Japanese lovers who love ancient Japan fantastic stories. But, wait, what is an Oni?
The Oni (鬼) is a Japanese demon from Japanese folklore and a kind of mountain creature with a shape of an ogre. They are known as evil and nasty beasts whose purpose is to drag the spirit of the deceased to the depths of the underworld. Their representations are very popular and widely used as characters in Japanese art, literature and theater and in many famous tales from ancient Japan such as Momotarou (桃太郎) or Issunboushi (一寸法師).
In most stories, Oni are described as a creature that torments villagers by doing evil deeds and even eating children, although they need not always be evil, in fact in some stories they help good people. Furthermore, the Oni is the main part of the Setsubun festival, where Japanese people throw soybeans at Oni’s eyes to to scare them away and escape bad luck.
It is quite a fascinating mythical creature don’t you think? That’s why today we are going to show you a little more about this mysterious being that we have very present in Japanese culture. Follow your favorite guide!
As you maybe know, the Oni is an equivalent of our western ogres. Depending on the different stories and literature from ancient Japan, Oni can have variable behaviours and appearances but most of them look like what we could call a gigantic humanoid creatures. #intro
What does Oni Mean?
Definition: The term Oni comes from the Kanji 鬼 and commonly means in Japanese demon or devil. This Kanji can refer to a specific type of creature from Japanese Folklore which can be compared to western Ogres, but Japanese people also use the term Oni to designate “foreign barbarians” or more generally to designate all the demons living in hell.
Moreover, ot is also said that the word Oni is derived from the term -on which can be translated in english as “hidding”, which is a characteristic that fits perfectly these creatures as it is said that they were unpleasant and invisible spirits that caused disasters and diseases.
In the 13th century, Japanese Buddhism integrated Oni by making them the two assistants of Enma-Daiou, the king of Jigoku (Buddhist hell), one being red (the akaOni) and the other blue (the aoOni) as well as the torturers of sinners in hell.
Their appearance probably comes from the demons of Chinese Buddhism. The original Onis having only a horse or ox head. The Onis are also closely associated with the notion of kimon, the demon’s door, which corresponds to the northeast direction and from which all the misfortunes of the world are supposed to come.
The apparitions of the Oni in literature became more important between the 18th and 19th centuries. According to Buddhists culture, there were two types of Oni:
The Earth Oni who were responsible for diseases and epidemics and, on the other hand, the Hellish Oni or Oni from Hell, who seeked to hunt sinners and deliver them to the God of hell and to other invisible demons that sing or whistle.
Two possible origins of the Oni are still discussed today. The first one says that these spirits took the modern form of an ogre due to the modernism of the creatures that were imported by Buddhism, such as the cases of rakshasa and yaksha from India or the demOnic subordinates of Enma-Daiou, who punishes sinners in hell.
The other one is known as the door of the demons and it is said that in the northwest of Japan, there was a door Kimon (鬼門, lit. The Demon Gate also known as Oni’s Gate). Therefore, it was considered as a direction that brought bad luck because it was believed that evil spirits passed through there.
If you study the assignment of the cardinal points to each animal that makes up the zodiac of the Japanese horoscope, the northwest is known as the direction of the “Bull-Tiger” and therefore it is said that the Oni have fangs, claws and wear loincloths with tiger skin.
What do Oni look like?
The Oni are most commonly represented as demons of great height and strength, so much that far exceeds humans. Here are some of the most important Oni characteristics that you should know:
Body and Skin
Oni bodies’ characteristics are pretty simple. These beasts took different forms to deceive and thus be able to devour humans They look like an ugly humanoid with shaggy hair, hairy feet and hands, a big belly and, sometimes, some jewelry around the limbs stolen from the victims that they ate in the past.
The color of their skin is very variable, from red to blue, black and even green. Moreover, Oni’s skin is reputed to be very resistant and some legends say that only few swords were able to cut it.
Oni’s faces are usually depicted scary and with angry expressions. Their face can look that of a man or be that of an animal such as a monkey, a horse, an ox or even a bird, and have usually sharp claws, teeth and two horns of varying length.
Finally, some Oni can have some particularities like only one eye, three eyes or extra fingers.
Oni’s eyes have not a specific description in Japanese Folklore. They can be black, red, blue and others.
However, Oni’s eyes are a very important symbol in Japan as during the Setsubun festival, a very old traditional event where Japanese people throw soybeans into Oni masks’s eyes to scare them away and escape bad luck.
Clothes and Weapons
To go with their horns, Oni are said wearing tiger skin underpants as their only clothes. These characteristics come from the word Ushi-Tora (丑寅), which means ” northeast direction”, where Oni are said to come from. The word Ushi means “bull/cow”, representing the horns, and the word Tora means “tiger”, representing Oni’s underpants.
Wild from nature, Oni also carry a metal mace called a kanabou (金棒) in Japanese. This picture of a Oni with a mace gave rise to the expression “Oni ni kanabou” meaning “Oni with a metal mace” to define someone unbeatable or the fact of increasing, through an object, someone’s “power” in an area where they are already very strong.
Another Japanese quote says “Don’t give a Kanabo to an Oni” and refers to not giving advantage and weapons to those who are already stronger than us.
Strength and Powers
To go with their scary mace, it is said that Oni have such a strength that the Kanabou does not seem necessary to them. In addition to that, some Oni possess the power of shapeshifting (changing their appearance), especially into a beautiful woman, but are easily spotted by their strength or their enormous appetite. Some are also able to fly to cover large distances quickly. All of them are carriers of misfortune.
It is also said that the female Oni, the Hannya, are transformed into demons after having died, for having been jealous or for having suffered an enormous grief, although not all are bad, it is said that there are monks who died and became Oni to protect the temples from disasters.
Oni are insatiable beasts and their diet is very varied. Although they have a preference for meat, whether animal or human, and that they are high consumers of alcohol.
Are Oni evil?
At first, you may ask yourself “are all Oni evil?” and you would be right to question yourself as, it wasn’t the case at the beginning. Indeed, in the first Japanese legends, Oni were known as benevolent creatures who drove away evil spirits and punished criminals and not the evil Yokai that we think to know today.
Indeed, they were powerful mountain spirits to whom offerings were made to protect the surrounding villages, especially from earthquakes. Unfortunately for them, their reputation then deteriorated little by little until they were perceived as violent and cruel after lots new tales and actings depicted them as evil creatures that devoured men alive became popular.
Some of the tales also coming from samurais that told of having killed some of these creatures to gain glory and receive rewards. This can be compared to the large number of European legends about knights slaying dragons.
Furthermore, Japanese literature says that Oni develop their perverse character when a person with an evil and perverse personality dies and arrives to the Buddhist hell. There, they are transformed into Oni and swear allegiance to the god of hell and devote themselves to torturing souls, causing pain with inhuman punishments, torturing and breaking bones as well as skinning the damned.
Other source also tells us that people with very evil personalities can also turn into Oni without dying, thus remaining as a spirit that causes pain, sorrow and disasters in its path.
Finally, vestiges of their beneficial nature can still be found on the roofs of some temples where one can see sculptures of Oni serving as protection.
Oni in Japanese Tradition
There are several traditions that are performed around the Oni. One of the most common is the one that takes place every year at the beginning of spring, the Setsubun festival.
In early spring, during the new year of the old lunar calendar, the Setsubun festival takes place. People wearing Oni masks are symbolically chased away to ward off bad luck for the coming year. To scare away the Oni, one throws soybeans outside one’s house saying “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” (Out with the demons, in with happiness).
Images or statues of monkeys are placed at the entrances of the houses in order to guard it against the Oni. This is done because the word monkey in Japanese is Saru (猿) which means to keep away. It is also said that holly trees can be used to ward off Oni’s presence.
There is also a very well known game in Japan called kakure Oni, whose translation would be “hidden Oni” which is nothing more than the popular game we know as hide and seek.
Nowadays, the Oni are not considered as bad as before, now they have more of a protective role, which brings as a consequence that other traditions are added such as men dressed in Oni costumes and lead Japanese parades, it is said that they go to the front to ward off bad luck; In addition, there are already buildings that place tiles with the Oni Onigawara’s face drawn on them, this in order to ward off bad luck.
There are also Japanese proverbs that refer to the Oni, such as “oya ni ninu ko wa Oni no ko” whose translation would be “a child who does not look like his parents is the son of an Oni”, which alludes to a son who is ungrateful to his parents.
In Japanese culture and folklore, it is very traditional to use masks in festivals, theaters and rituals, through which people, creatures, demons, animals or ghosts are represented.
The use of Oni mask and others dates back to 300 B.C., more precisely to the time of Jomon, they were used in rituals and games, in some cases they were used to cover the face of a deceased and thus avoid evil spirits. There are different types of masks depending on their use, the most common are 3 which are the samurai mask, the theater mask and those used in festivities.
👉 Related article: Meaning and Types of Japanese Masks
The Oni is considered in Japanese folklore as a demon capable of doing all kinds of evil and creating painful emotions. They are also used to prowl around the deceased, with the intention of attracting their souls to hell.
If there was a hierarchy of Japanese demons, the Oni would be first, first because of their grotesque appearance, plus they are capable of causing great damage to humans and attracting havoc to the earth. The belief in demons, ghosts and evil spirits has a long tradition in Japanese culture, which is intrinsically linked to religious beliefs that emerged thousands of years ago.
Masks are the main attraction when it comes to getting a tattoo or a irezumi and this preference is quite peculiar since they were used to spread terror and therefore scare humans, especially in the decorations of plays; It is said that the main reason for choosing them as tattoos is that they also serve to scare away evil spirits.
After the appearance of Buddhism in Japan, the characters of the Oni began to be used in theaters, dances and prayers, because it is said that there are also monks who, upon their death, became Oni for this way to take care of some temples. or important places. (See article: Zen Buddhism )
Nowadays, Oni mask tattoos are very common, especially among admirers of traditional Japanese culture and art, the most common tattoos include its fierce expression, its exorbitant eyes, its mouth with many teeth and fangs and the horns that always identify them.
These tattoos are usually confused with the demons represented by religions and Western art, the main places to get this type of tattoos are the back, the back of the hands and on the sides of the chest.
Oni Tattoo Meaning
Currently it is said that Oni tattoos and Oni Mask tattoos are often done as a symbol of protection from enemies and all forms of evil.
However, tattoos have the meaning that each person gives them, that is, they acquire the signification or interpretation that their owners give them when choosing the design that is going to be made. In addition to what is really important is that the person is comfortable the design and the result of the tattoo;
But it raises curiosity, that one of the most common Japanese tattoos is that of the Oni and that, as they say, each person assigns the meaning he wants.
Of course, there are people who love body art and choose to get Oni tattoos only out of love and admiration for the traditions of Japanese tattoos and in some cases they are used to be a symbol of the unreal, the magical, as well as representing strength and bravery.
Oni in Popular Culture
In Japanese popular culture, Oni are one of the most used figures either in video games, anime or manga. Below you will a list of works in which the figure of Oni have been included:
Oni representations in video games
- Mortal Kombat
- Touhou Project
- Guild Wars
- Throne of the Darkness
- BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger
- The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
- Saturday Night Slam Masters
- Megami Tensei
- Wii Little King’s Story
- Super Street Fighter IV
- Black Belt
Oni representations in Japanese mangas and animes
- In Yu-Gi-Oh!, there are 2 cards called Swamp Battleguard and Lava Batlleguard, which make direct reference to a green and a red Oni.
- The story of Inuyasha is based on the yōkai and ancient Japanese folklore, and various Oni appear throughout the series.
- In the anime Rosario to vampire, there are appearances of various Oni that interact throughout the story.
- In Rumiko Takahashi’s graphic novels, several Oni are named in addition to mentiOning various elements of Japanese folklore. The novel titled Urusei Yatsura, has a protagOnist whose name is Lamu and is a young Oni.
Zenki is the series created by Kikuhide Tani, which has an Oni as the main character.
- In Tsubasa Reservoir ChrOnicle, the existence of an alternate world called Outo is handled, in which its two main protagOnists must face a diversity of Oni in order to earn money.
- Hakuouki Shinsengumi has several of the characters whose characteristics are similar to that of the Oni, the protagOnist being an Oni.
- The anime Hakuouki, has as one of the main antagOnists an Oni and it is led by Kazama, who wants to destroy the Shinegumis and kidnap Chizuru.
- In Dragon Ball Z, the Oni are in charge of performing various tasks in the other world, with special emphasis on hell, where the protagOnist named Goku meets two Oni who are in charge of showing him the way out of hell where Goku fell when passing through the path of the snake.
- In Naruto, the summOnings of the Goddess Tayuya are also Oni.
Oni in Western culture
Japanese mythology is not only popular in Japan but has spread throughout the world and, every day, more books, comics and series are including Japanese culture into their plot as it isv very appreciated in the western culture.
We have well known series and it is one of the most successful formats of Western culture, the main series in which the Onis are included are listed below.
- In the TV Show Teen Wolf appears the figure of the demons Oni, where they are described as beings of total darkness, invincible and whose eyes are bright, similar to the color of California fireflies.
- In the Jackie Chan series, reference is made to the masks, which are placed on the face and give the possibility of transforming into Oni, which in turn are governed by their king Tarakudo.
- In the Code Lyoko series, an outfit that bears the face of the Oni is used, especially when Ulrich is on Lyoko, he wears the face of an Oni on the back of his costume.
Here a some of the most notorious stories with Oni told in Japan:
The story of Momotaro (桃太郎)
Once upon a time, there was a young boy born from a giant peach and taken in by a family of farmers when a band of Oni was terrorizing the area where they lived.
Momotaro decided to kill them and went to the island of Onigashima. On the way, he met a dog, a pheasant and a monkey to whom he gave some food that his adoptive mother had prepared for him.
Pleased by his generosity, the animals offered to accompany Momotarou on his journey to slay these beasts. With their help, he got rid of the Onis and then brought their treasure back to his family and they lived happily after.
The story of Issunboushi (一寸法師)
In the Province of Tsu (津の国, Tsu-no-kuni), there was elderly country couple without any child. In despair, they pray to the deities of Sumiyoshi Shrine (住吉, Sumiyoshi) to finally grant them one a new born.
Taken pity by the gods, their wish is granted and ten months later the woman gives birth to a child. But the little boy is only one sun long (一寸, issun?, about 3 centimeters) and, as the years go by, the little boy doesn’t seem to grow at all. Because of his tiny size, his parents decide to name him Issun-bōshi (lit. The One-Sun Boy)
One day, Issun-bōshi declares that he wishes to go to the imperial capital to become a samurai. Making a boat out of a bowl and a pair of chopsticks into oars, armed with a sewing needle as a sword, passed through a scabbard made of a strand of straw, Issun-bōshi sets off by river.
Arriving in the capital, he finds a beautiful house and gets hired there. During a visit to the temple, during which he accompanies the daughter of the house, an Oni appears to kidnap her. When Issun-bōshi steps in to protect the girl, the ogre swallows him whole to get rid of him.
But Issun-bōshi attacks him from the inside, pricking his stomach with his needle. Succumbing to the unbearable pain, the ogre gives up and spits Issun-bōshi out before fleeing.
In his escape, the Oni drops his magic mallet: Uchide no kozuchi, a mythical object able of making whatever one desires appear at once. Using the mallet, Issun-bōshi manages to change his height and becomes a tall, handsome young man.
He uses it again to make the most appetizing food appear, then a great treasure. Finally, he marries the girl and spends the rest of his life in happiness and prosperity.
Japanese Oni Quotes
Finally, to conclude this huge article, let’s see some vocabulary and expressions formed with the word Oni:
- 鬼畜 (kichiku): beast -> metaphor for a very brutal, cruel and ruthless person.
- 鬼門 (kimon): northeast -> it is considered as the direction of bad omen (the gate from where Oni come out).
- 鬼婆 (Onibaba): bad old woman, witch
- 鬼ごっこ (Onigokko): run away from Oni who catches you (run away from Oni who catches you).
- 鬼に金棒 (Oni ni kanaboo): double the strength – Literal translation: “Oni with iron club”.
- 心を鬼にする (Kokoro o Oni ni suru): To take a stern attitude toward someone for their sake – Literal translation: “To have the heart of Oni.”
- 鬼の目にも涙 (Oni no me ni mo namida): Tough men also shed tears. – Literal translation: “Tears even in Oni’s eyes.”
- 鬼の居ぬ間に洗濯 (Oni no inu ma ni sentaku): When the cat is away, the mice dance. – Literal translation: “Wash life away while the Oni is away.”
- 来年のことを言うと鬼が笑う (Rainen no koto o iu to Oni ga warau): No one knows what the future holds. – Literal translation: “If you talk about next year, the Oni laughs”