One of the most instantly recognizable creatures in Japanese folklore is the terrifying and impossibly strong Oni, which are featured in fables, countless films and works of literature, there is even a day in the year set aside to scare off these demons in an attempt to rid oneself of bad luck and ensure a year of prosperity. Some wrongly claim that Oni are based on foreigners living in Japan, or gaijin, but the true inspiration behind the monster is far less prejudice and much more complicated.
Originally, Oni were not the stomping beasts we see today, but specter like creatures, which were still ferocious, but did not have a physical body; which may explain the etymology behind their name, as the kanji On or 隠 means to conceal or hide.
The monsters didn’t take on more human like form until the influx of Buddhism in Japan. With the new religion came a plethora of legend and myth, and the creatures Rakshasa and Yaksha are clear inspirations on how Oni became to be depicted.
Like much else in Japanese folklore, ancient Chinese history played a large part too. Kimon are known as “Demon Gates” and refer to an unlucky direction, from which demons can emerge. Each of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac is assigned a cardinal direction and these Kimon are located between the directions assigned to the tiger and the ox. Each year, on Setsubun, people in Japan figure out this direction, known as Ushi-Tora (Ox-Tiger), and face it whilst eating an entire sushi roll in silence; this ritual is supposed to defuse the bad luck emerging from the Kimon.
Being nestled between these two creatures also had a direct effect on the Oni’s appearance, with horns and course, black hair being supplied by the ox, and the sharp fangs and a tiger-stripped loin cloth coming from the tiger.
Oni are known to be amazingly strong, especially when armed with their trusty club, known as a kanabo (金棒). They are so strong in fact that the phrase 鬼に金棒 means to be unstoppable! But there are measures to scare them off; many temples are built in an “L” shape to protect them from the Ushi-Tora direction. Monkey statues are also said to bring luck, as the Japanese word for “monkey” is Saru, another reading for which is the honorific version of “leaving.”
Perhaps most strange are the rituals behind the annual Setsubun, which sees people eating their age in dried beans to secure their health for the year. But if Oni interrupt the celebrations (which they often do, in schools and day care centers nationwide – or at least fathers or male teachers dressed like Oni), the children are encouraged to throw the beans at the Oni, whilst shouting:
“Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”
Which can be rather clumsily translated into saying:
“Go away Oni! Come here luck!”
Although extremely traditional, Setsubun seems to be a day during which naughty children can be frightened stiff, and if they act up after Setsubun, the mere threat of the Oni coming back is normally enough to calm them down.
To learn more about the Setsubun celebrations, be sure to check out Axiom’s rundown, here!