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Japanese oni are a very deep and varied subject. Today I dive into these mountain-dwelling ogres to give you a little more insight as to what they are and what they do.
Hey hey, this is Thersa Matsuura and you’re listening to Uncanny Japan.
It’s going to be Setsubun/節分 soon, Feb. 3rd, remember the time of year the oni wait in their caves until dark, sharpening their claws and fangs — perhaps even the horns on their heads. They oil up their muscles, then use those same oiled hands to further muss up their head of wild, tangled hair.
Next they tie on their favorite tiger skin loincloth and fasten studded or spiked iron bands around their ankles and wrists. Then once all the light has faded from the sky, they creep from their caves and descend into towns and cities throughout Japan where they rampage through the streets, growling, roaring and beating on doors with their iron clubs. Occasionally, they snatch away some unsuspecting child; especially the bad ones.
If you’re prepared, though, with some roasted soybeans or maybe you’ve nailed a sardine head skewered on a holly branch to your front door — they hate that — then you should be safe. You can pelt them with beans and shout “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi”, Out with the oni, in with good luck, and they’ll cut and run. It makes for a very exciting night.
Seriously, what’s not to love about an oni. I’m not being sarcastic either.
I’ve had several patrons and listeners ask for an episode on these lovable and fear-inducing brutes, but it’s taken me a long while to do so. I’m quite intimidated to tell you the truth. Oni lore is so incredibly deep and rich and varied that I literally don’t know where to start. The beginning? Well, that’s like the most overwhelming part.
The more I read about where they came from, the more different stories I run across. Oni are just that fascinating. Today let’s wade in and see what we come up with.
Oni. They’re everywhere and they’ve been everywhere for a very long time. When you look up their origin story, you find that there isn’t just one. Very smart, well educated people have a lot of theories.
I highly recommend reading anything by Noriko T. Reider. She has researched and written extensively about these bad boys. Her book Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present, for example, is a wealth of information.
She believes there are four lines from which the oni have traveled.
Four Types of Oni
4. Onmyoudo/陰陽道, or the way of yin and yang
Very briefly, let’s look at each of them.
Oni originating in Japan. Well, that makes sense. It also makes sense that in an attempt to understand terrifying natural events, like thunder, lightning, violent storms, and earthquakes early Japanese people would ascribe some otherworldly explanation. Let’s say a god or an early version of an oni.
You can also find oni in Japan’s creation myth in the Kojiki (712). The female creator of Japan, Izanami, dies after giving birth to the fire god (very sad) and goes to the Yomi, the land of the dead. Her grief stricken twin-brother-husband, Izanagi, goes after. It’s dark down there. But he does find her.
Unfortunately, much like Persephone and her pomegranate seeds, Izanami explains she’s already had a bite to eat and must remain there. Please just go, don’t look at me, she says.
But Izanagi has none of that, lights a fire and sets eyes on his dead wife who is actually a rotting corpse, maggots and all.
This causes Izanami much shame. Also, she’s livid. Born of different body parts, she sends the gods of thunder, big oni-looking brutes, as well as yomotsu-shikomi, either one or eight (depending on what you read) female oni-hags after him.
So there’s proof Japan had its own brand of oni way back in at least the 700s.
Number two is China. We all know that China influenced Japan quite a bit back in the day. The character used now for oni/鬼 is, of course, of Chinese origin. In China it means invisible soul and spirits of the dead. But there are some who think the pronunciation came from a different character, on/隠 which means to hide behind something not wishing to be seen.
Shall we move on to three? The Buddhist origin of oni. Some believe that all oni are wholly from the Buddhist tradition. I mean what is a Buddhist hell if you don’t have a plethora of oni skewering you with long blades, pouring boiling iron all over you, or stirring you into a pot of pus and blood. I mean, come on.
I have a question. What did your mother tell you when you told a lie? Well, some children are told that if they lie an oni will pull out their tongue with a pair of pliers or some such device. I’ve been to several temples where fierce oni and pairs of pliers are on display. So mom’s have proof even.
Lastly, the onmyodo beginnings. Basically, onmyoudou is an eclectic practice that I really need to study more. Think astrology and the five elements mixed with a good dose of yin and yang and magic. Long story short, some powerful onmyoudou masters were thought to be able to create oni.
Okay, I’m going to stop there because I also have a book in Japanese that talks about different oni categorizations. There are the natural ones, the ones born from rebellions and others that came about from art.
So just understand it’s a deep, deep topic and most everyone recognizes there are different origins but that over time there is also a lot of overlap and even contradiction. Oni are very complicated beasts.
Hey, did you know they’re cannibals? They love to eat and they love to eat people. There’s an actual phrase oni hitoguchi/鬼一口 one gulp or bite from and oni. Basically that an oni can swallow you up in one bite. And there are stories of it happening, too.
In the tale Ise Monogatari a dude who was in love a high classed woman, but because of their differences in status, they couldn’t marry. So one night he steals her away. While they were fleeing it started to storm. He found a kura-storehouse that wasn’t locked so he puts her inside. Not sure why he didn’t go in as well. But he didn’t. After kidnapping her he now decides to be a gentleman.
Anyway, there is lots of thunder and lightning all night long. Next morning he opens the door and she’s nowhere to be found. Evidently an oni had eaten her up in one bite and her screams weren’t heard because of the storm. I have a couple follow up questions about this story, but don’t know who to ask.
Hey, did you know oni can transform? They can. They can turn into good looking humans to play tricks or get a good meal.
True story, way back in the day children born with teeth were thought to be the children of oni and you don’t want to know what happened to them.
Oh, speaking of giving birth to an oni child. If you’re a kid in Japan and your acting really obnoxious, your parents might just say to you. “Oya ni ninu ko wa onigo/親ににぬこは鬼子. A child who doesn’t resemble or act like its parents is the child of an oni.” You won’t be taken out and killed. Just shamed.
Japanese Vampire – Kyuuketsuki
Oh, and there’s something clever and fun that the Japanese language did with the word vampire. I can’t find any reference to a western style vampire in old Japan. Pretty much oni did the blood sucking. So instead of wrestling with that nasty V sound and using katakana to import the word, someone along the way assigned Japanese characters to the vampire. The three kanji are kyuuketsuki/吸血鬼, blood sucking oni.
Some of the Many Types of Oni
There are so many types of oni as well as infamous ones, I haven’t even scratched the surface. There’s Shuten Douji/酒呑童子 who was an oni leader who got his head lopped off. There are Amanojaku天邪鬼 I told a story about these demon-like beasties in episode 19 The Heavenly Demon. You have your Yamauba or yamanba/山姥, nasty mountain witches that offer help to lost travelers and then eat them all up.
There are things called Gozu/牛頭 literally cow head and Mezu/馬頭 horse head. You’ll probably run into these two ruffians at the gates of hell.
But there is also ushi oni/牛鬼 that can be read gyuuki, too. It means cow oni, but sorta spider looking, with a cow’s head. Like to hang out near water and might just kill you with their poisonous breath before they eat you.
Don’t forget your Gaki/餓鬼 hungry ghosts or your kijo/鬼女 female oni.
There are more. But you get the idea so I’ll stop here.
But before I go, I need your help.
100th Episode Ask for Help
Uncanny Japan is going to hit its whomping 100th episode early this May. Five and a half years after I sat down on a rocky beach and hit record and I’m finally here. Milestone indeed!
Looking back, personally it’s been a tempestuous five and half years, but the podcast has kept me afloat. It’s special. But a podcast is nothing but me talking to a wall with a blanket nailed to it if there are no listeners and supporters of the show, and that is every single one of you. You all are super special.
So here’s my idea as it squirms nebulously in my brain: for episode one hundred, I want to hear your stories. Send me any strange, spooky, wonderful, funny, and, yes, uncanny experience or episode you have about Japan. Anything your okay with me reading on the show.
Then for episode 100, sound man, Richard, and I will take turns reading as many as we can with a little banter about each one and some sharing of our own odd encounters. I don’t know about Richard, but I have a few.
So what do you think?
If you’re interested, send your stories to uncannyjapan(at)gmail.com along with a short bio and the name you’d like me to use when introducing your piece.
Depending on the amount of responses I get, I can’t guarantee you’ll be read, but if you keep your story tight and well written, your chances improve greatly.
Send me your stories!
Talk to you soon, bye bye!
Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura
Cinematic Suspense Series Episode 001 by Sascha Ende®