Ever since I saw a mother discipline her child by threatening to call an oni/ogre, I’ve been wanting to do talk about this. Then I found out it really is a thing, an app called Oni Kara Denwa (A Call From an Oni, or as it’s translated in Japanese: Ghost Call) to be more precise.
In Episode 37, I talk about what I’ve heard playfully called the oni appuli. It has over 10 million downloads and purports to help you raise your child. I’ve got a lot of thoughts and feelings about this one, but I try as much as possible to be objective when giving you an explanation of what it is and what it does.
What do you think? Useful? Traumatizing?
[00:00:02] Uncanny Japan is author me, Thersa Matsuura, exploring all that is weird from Japan. Strange superstitions and old wives tales, cultural oddities and interesting language quirks. These are little treasures I dig up while doing research for my writing, and I want to share them with you here on Uncanny Japan. I hope you like the show.
[00:31] Hey, Hey everyone, Terry here. It looks like we have a one day respite from the rainy season, so I hurried out in the middle of the night to record the changing insects. Can you tell they’re a little different than before? Crickets or something like crickets have begun to appear. It makes me wish for fall, but we still have to get to the Japanese summer.
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[01:12] Now onto today’s topic. It’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while now. I have crazy mixed feelings about it. It’s a current topic, probably the most current I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most eyebrow-raising subject I think too.
[01:28] Let me tell you a quick story about how I ran across this the very first time. About two years ago, I was with a woman who had a toddler who was badly misbehaving. She tried getting him to listen, but nothing seemed to work. She then reached into her purse and pulled out her cell phone. The kid stopped in his tracks. She tapped the screen a few times and said, “I’m going to call the Oni.” The oni, as you remember, is a huge Japanese ogre with long fangs and horns. The kid immediately screamed, “No!” He grabbed her legs, begging for her not to call and that he’d be good. At the time, I thought that was a really crappy thing to do, poor kid, and it stuck with me. Then, about a month ago, I was talking to someone else who mentioned the popular oni app. “The what?” I asked. I immediately remembered that day with the mom and her son.
[02:22] As it turns out, she hadn’t made up the story about calling an oni. There really is an oni app where you can call an ogre or an ogre can call you when that out of control child needs a little discipline. In Japanese, it’s called “Oni kara denwa, ko sodate shin ni yakudatsu aprui“. Basically a call from an ogre, an app that supports raising your child. Like I just said, I have so many thoughts about this, so many thoughts, but I’m not going to think them out loud. I’m going to instead tell you as objectively as I can and as best as I can about this app and what it does; not long-term mind you, because that’s where I have my issues.
[03:05] First off, it’s a free app with loads of ads, of course, that works for both iOS and Android. It’s quite popular here and already has over 10 million downloads. There’s even a deluxe version. Okay, how to use it. When your child is throwing a tantrum, refusing to eat his broccoli, whining about brushing her teeth or not wanting to go to bed, you open the app, choose a creature and tap. Your phone then rings. Now, children who have had one of their guardians use this app usually start behaving right then. They know what’s going to happen. But say the kid is new to the whole calling an ogre or demon thing. You then answer the ringing phone. Depending on what beastie you choose–there is a different one for every situation–the call goes differently. Let me tell you first about the most popular one, the aka oni, or red ogre. But before that, there are two things about the Japanese language that make this interesting and effective, if that’s the word I’m looking for. In Japanese, you very often drop the subject of a sentence, so these entire conversations can be done without the creature specifically saying he or she. I use he here just because every time I’ve ever seen this used, it’s always with some poor boy.
[04:22] Another thing is that Japanese has very distinct levels of politeness or casualness or rough talk. The oni begins by talking quite politely to the mother. When the mother is cued to give the phone to her child, there is a pause and his register quickly changes to a really angry, scary one.
[04:41] Okay, so the red ogre goes something like this. The phone rings, you tap the screen and a deep voice answers, “Moshi moshi. This is the red oni. I’m guessing he’s not listening to you again. (sigh) Again? Okay, would you please put your child on the phone for a minute? Pause. Kora! Why don’t you listen? If you don’t listen, I will put you into a hot, hot, spicy soup and eat you up. Okay, I’m on my way there right now to get you.”
[05:16] Okay, my little acting really doesn’t do it justice. It’s all in Japanese, but let me play you a little bit of what it sounds like.
Editor’s note: this is how the speech-to-text robot hilariously transcribed the Japanese into English:
[05:25] [inaudible] well is she really shoot Cody dues? Well she couldn’t stay mounted. This guy. Uh, but I’m gonna tell you [inaudible] and this guy, I swear they do a joke though cause I knew they were [inaudible]
[05:55] Oh known that you got the kit. I know you can. I do. I do. It’s you know [inaudible] neither did Tommy toes though. Email code OCE and you move cutting. You can cut up monk. They don’t know
[06:16] Scary, right? There’s another version, when you catch your child lying, where he actually says that he will take you to Enma-sama, which is kind of a king of hell, and you will have him pull out your tongue for lying. It’s not just the scary voice and what he’s saying either, but there’s also an animated character on the phone, on the screen. It’s not super creepy, but for a child, depending on the age, I’m guessing it’s terrifying. In the aka oni’s case, it’s a red-skinned ogre, long hair, horns, fangs and shiny eyes. When it yells, it moves quickly toward the screen. You can see its shoulders heaving from breathing hard, and its mouth opens and closes.
[06:56] Like I said, there are quite a few creatures to choose from. Many of them do something where they talk calmly at first, with their backs to the screen, and then just when they get to the point where they demand the child to stop crying, behave, listen to his parents, it turns around, and reveals a scary face.
[07:15] Let me tell you a little bit more about the different creatures. This is where things get wacky. When you go to the app, there are a few tabs. There is one for recommendations, youkai, scolding and praising. There’s even one for making your child think. You also get a choice of morning, noon and night because the scripts run a little different depending on the time of day, I suppose. I can’t go through all of them, but let me hit some of the highlights.
[07:41] First. aside from the red ogre, there’s also an ao oni, or blue ogre. Blue skinned, he’s skinnier, still frightening-looking and has a similar script to the red ogre. You can call a different blue ogre who says he’s filling in for the red ogre because he’s not in right now. This one starts out very lighthearted and friendly. He turns angry and growly when he’s scolding the child, but then immediately goes back into friendly mode, almost apologizing, saying maybe he wasn’t intense enough. Ha ha ha. Before turning angry again, saying that if you don’t straighten up, he’s going to get the red ogre. But then he ends again with a friendly, “Ja ne,” see ya.
[08:22] Okay, some others. There’s the ghost called Okio, a woman who asked why a child isn’t napping yet. “You should hurry up and nap,” she says. “If you don’t nap now, you’ll go to bed late at night, and if you stay up late at night there are lots of ghosts hanging around, so you better hurry up and get to sleep.”
[08:44] Then, there’s a witch that can be used for kids who don’t want to clean up. She threatens to use her magic to make all their toys disappear, but first she gives them one more chance to clean up before she goes to that extreme.
[08:58] If your child doesn’t want to take a bath, you can call the wolfman or Frankenstein or a Japanese youkai called an akaname, a frightful old hag with a long tongue who licks the tiles.
[09:12] Are your children fighting with each other? That’s easy. Call the alien. A gray that has big, blinky eyes and a freaky toothy mouth that moves, while a robotic voice instructs the siblings to stop fighting. He’s going to fly his UFO over the house and if they’re not behaving, pick them up and fly them deep into outer space.
[09:34] Your child won’t eat? Okay, how about calling the zombie? He’s got rolling eyes and basically just talks about how hungry he is, and that if the kid isn’t going to eat his dinner, then he’ll come over and eat it for them. “Where’s your address?” He asks. “Oh, that’s close. I’ll be right over.”
[09:53] There’s even a Kracken. He’s there to whip selfish children into shape. He promises to give them one wish, but before he does that, the child has to promise to trade their most prized possession. “If you like to sing, I’ll take your voice. If you like to run, I’ll take your feet. Oh, you love your family. Then I’ll come for them.”
[10:18] There’s also something called a Dandan, which looks and sounds suspiciously like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. He’s there to tell your son or daughter that it’s okay if they don’t take a bath. He hasn’t taken one for 130 years and he’s feeling fine. The only problem he has is that his hair started falling out. His friends won’t even come near him anymore. “If you don’t want to end up like me,” he says, “listen to your parents and get a bath. Don’t forget to use the dryer on your hair when you get out.”
[10:50] There are foxes to encourage one to change clothes, tengu to warn about telling lies, a ninja to explain the importance of not being noisy. He’s kind of cute and instructs the child to use a quiet voice. He calls it a ninja voice. Krampus even makes an appearance. This one is particularly scary because it isn’t an animation. It’s someone dressed up in this scary costume with big thick horns, long upturned fangs and threatening to throw the child into hell if they don’t straighten up.
[11:26] I was surprised to see one of the choices is a pro wrestler named Masahiro Chono. He shows up in a short haircut, a suit and tie, sunglasses, complete with animated lightning flashing around his head, when he gets angry. He goes back and forth from being kind of nice and understanding to berating the child, ending by just going off with something like, “Next time you don’t behave, I’m going to bring a bunch of my friends and visit your house.” I guess his shtick he was wrestling was, he was some kind of yakuza or something.
[11:56] Another interesting thing about this app is that you can use a timer. If you tap on that, it will give you an option of 10, 30, or 50 seconds. Say you choose 10 seconds. It then takes you to a screen where you choose who you want to call in the allotted time. So the scary creature calls you instead of the other way around.
[12:19] So I’ve spent hours listening to all the different scenarios and I kind of wanted to find something that maybe wouldn’t traumatize a child for life. So here’s what I found. There’s a kappa one that’s kind of interesting. A kappa is a Japanese beastie I haven’t talked about on the podcast yet, but it has a special place in my heart. Basically, think aquatic creature with a turtle shell back, webbed feet and hands, a parrot-like beak for a mouth, spiky hair and a concave round spot on its head that has to be kept full of water or else it gets very weak and dies. His ringtone is actually water running, and his spiel is not to go play near water alone because his friends will grab you and drag you deep into the water and you’ll die. If, however, you’re with an adult, they can’t hurt you, so have a good time playing in the water. Just make sure you’re with an adult.
[13:15] There’s also one called the Chojin Nega, one of those Japanese power ranger-type characters who tells your child it’s up to them to fight bacteria in their mouths. He says something like, “I’m here to help everyone. Are you eating properly? Eating good food gives you a strong body. You need strong teeth to eat all that good food, but there is something called baikin, bacteria, that can give you cavities. But don’t worry, you can fight your mouth bacteria by brushing your teeth.” The dressed-up character then turns very small and appears inside an open mouth and actually walks the child through brushing his or her teeth, telling them how to rush top, bottom, front, back, and then having them rinse and show their parents. The whole thing is accompanied by cheesy superhero issue music. It’s kind of cute.
[14:03] Speaking of cute, there are two young girls who I learned are YouTubers, Kan and Akira. They’re there to help you go to sleep by shooting you with magical twinkle sleeping magic. They’re also there to support good brushing habits.
[14:18] Then I ran across a funny one aimed at the father in the house. If daddy comes home late, you call a ghost called Ochio. She’s this wispy drawing, long hair, you can’t really see her face at first. She comes on and says something like, “Moshi moshi, this is the ghost Ochio. What? Papa is coming home late again? Every week? Every week? Now that’s a problem. Can you give the phone to Papa?” There’s a pause. “This is Ochio, the ghost. Where have you been until this late hour? Oh, at work, huh? I’ve told mama everything.” Then her face changes to a scary one with red eyes and missing teeth and she says, “I’m on mama’s side!”
[15:16] But, if you have a better marriage than that, there’s an Ochio for you too. You can call her again. This time she appears similar to before, but with this hokey piano music in the background. She goes on about how hard Papa works, and even though he’s working so hard he takes time to go places with his family. It ends with Ochio turning to show she has this perfectly adorable face, and saying that mama loves him.
[15:45] Like I said, I have thoughts and feelings about this app, and maybe you do too. I mean the cute ones are really cute, but some of them… I don’t know. If you’d like to talk about them, I’ll leave the comments section on the Uncanny Japan website open. I’m kind of curious to see what everyone thinks.
[16:04] Okay, so that wraps up the call from an ogre episode. Thank you all so much for listening and I will talk to you again very, very soon. Bye. Bye.
[16:18] Pssst! Hey, do you like scary stories? Or maybe you don’t do full-on horror, but enjoy a nice dark tale. Something creepy involving Japanese folklore and superstition. Well, if that’s the case, you can sneak on over to Amazon or wherever you like to buy books and look for my two short story collections: A Robe of Feathers and The Carp-Faced Boy. All you need to do is search for Theresa Matsuura. Let me spell that for you. T-H-E-R-S-A, M-A-T-S-U-U-R-A. Another place you can find me doing things is on Patreon. There, once a month for my five dollar and up patrons, I translate, retell and record obscure Japanese folktales. Some are dark, some are humorous, some are just weird. And lastly, another super sweet thing you can do is to write a review on iTunes. By doing this you help like minded people find Uncanny Japan. It’s a little thing but it means a lot and it’s a great big help. Thank you, I’m Thersa Matsuura, and I’ll talk to you soon.
(Transcribed using Happy Scribe)
Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura
I think it defers parenting to something else, not even a someone else, which seems more like another of those “internet of things” situations and, as with any app, I have to consider what information is being gained by its use by the app provider.
Thanks for doing an episode on 鬼から電話. It sure raises quite a few questions, like you said in the podcast. Since I’m a clinical child and youth psychologist, I got very interested to dig a little deeper. So, I’ve checked out the app myself now, and done some cursory searching on the Webs.
Here in Sweden corporal punishment has been prohibited by law since 1979. In my view, this app would be illegal over here (at least some of the oni in it!). It’s also fairly out of line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child… If I met parents who used this app with a patient of mine, I’d be obliged by law to report them so Social Services. We’d also start helping them to find other strategies, without an app, to raise their kid.
That said, raising your child is hard work over a looong time. I really think this app makes a good job at fooling parents into feeling short term “successful”. I’m worried about the long term effects… for the relation between the child and the parent.
Anyway. Thanks for covering it. I had totally missed it, and it’s apparently been around since 2013ish.
Andreas! This is fascinating! I was absolutely torn apart when I saw it used. I’m also worried about the long-term effects, and basically how actually lazy it is. I wish you could come over and tell these moms what they are potentially doing. I was also shocked not only about how long it’s been around but by how many downloads there have been. I have some stories about when I was raising my child (things mother-in-law did and said) that are quite shocking. This really was a difficult episode for me. Thank you for commenting.
[…] The Ogre App to Discipline Your Child (oni kara denwa) […]
This was so interesting! It reminds me of when I was a little girl and my mother would call the Bogeyman, who conveniently lived down the street, whenever we were misbehaving. She would pick up the phone (a rotary phone) and make a big show about turning the dial for each number. She would “talk” to the Bogeyman and tell him that we’re misbehaving, and we would frantically tell her that we were sorry and we would promptly do what we were supposed to be doing (usually it was taking a bath or going to bed on time). I look back on this kind of fondly, as it never really traumatized us too badly. (Perhaps we were lucky?) But I can certainly see how this tactic would be questionable and even problematic to many people. I am not a mother myself, and so I don’t really have the experience on a personal level when it comes to the difficulties of raising children.
The use of fear and storytelling and the threat of the supernatural to discipline children has certainly been around for a long time. I recently read an article on NPR about “how Inuit parents teach their children to control their anger.” In the article, it’s explained that in traditional Inuit parenting culture, there is no scolding, no timeouts, and no raised voices. Instead, parents use storytelling to teach their children to avoid danger. Here’s an excerpt that I think is relevant to this topic:
[For example, how do you teach kids to stay away from the ocean, where they could easily drown? Instead of yelling, “Don’t go near the water!” Jaw says Inuit parents take a pre-emptive approach and tell kids a special story about what’s inside the water. “It’s the sea monster,” Jaw says, with a giant pouch on its back just for little kids.
“If a child walks too close to the water, the monster will put you in his pouch, drag you down to the ocean and adopt you out to another family,” Jaw says.
“Then we don’t need to yell at a child,” Jaw says, “because she is already getting the message.”
Inuit parents have an array of stories to help children learn respectful behavior, too. For example, to get kids to listen to their parents, there is a story about ear wax, says film producer Myna Ishulutak.
“My parents would check inside our ears, and if there was too much wax in there, it meant we were not listening,” she says.]
Like I said, I could see how this can be viewed as a problematic way to parent, especially in a modernized, Western lens. Again, I don’t have experience with parenting, so I’m trying to be as objective as possible. It’s just all really interesting to me and it seems to show the different kinds of parenting styles that exist in different cultures.
Sim, you are absolutely right about fear and storytelling being used to teach children about danger. And my parents most definitely used various techniques on me. Some children are better listeners (less earwax?) or understanders, perhaps. Some quite stubborn, like me. So I can see why telling a story about a beast in the water dragging them down if they got too close would work. Thank you for sharing the Inuit story. Fascinating that in Japan the story of the kappa pulling you down and drowning you is so similar. Thanks for listening, too!