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Oni in pilgrim's clothing. Tokugawa period. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. 59.2 cm x 22.1 cm

Oni () are a kind of yōkai, or supernatural ogre, or trolls in Japanese folklore. They are typically portrayed as hulking figures with one or more horns growing out of their heads. Stereotypically, they are conceived of as red or blue-colored (green-colored), wearing loincloths of tiger pelt, and carrying iron clubs.

They are popular characters in Japanese art, literature, and theatre,[1] and appear as stock villains in the well-known fairytales of Momotaro (Peach Boy), Issun-bōshi, and Kobutori Jīsan.


Depictions of oni vary widely but usually portray them as hideous, gigantic ogre-like creatures with a single horn or multiple horns emerging from their heads,[2] with sharp claws, wild hair.[3]

They are often depicted wearing tiger-skin loincloths and carrying iron clubs called kanabō (金棒).[2] This image leads to the expression "oni with an iron club" (鬼に金棒, oni-ni-kanabō), that is, to be invincible or undefeatable.[4][5]

Their skin may be any number of colors, but red and blue and green are particularly common.[6][7] They may sometimes also be depicted as black-skinned, or yellow-skinned.[2]

They may occasionally be depicted with a third eye on their forehead,[2][8] or extra fingers and toes.[8]


An old etymology for "oni" is that the word derives from on, the on'yomi reading of a character () meaning "to hide or conceal", due to oni having the tendency of "hiding behind things, not wishing to appear". This explanation is found in the 10th century dictionary Wamyōshō, which reveals that the oni at the time had a different meaning, defined as "a soul/spirit of the dead".[9][10]

The character for oni, 鬼 (pinyin: guǐ; Jyutping: gwai2) in Chinese also means a dead or ancestral spirit, and not necessarily an evil specter.[9] Accordingly, Chinese (Taoist) origins for the concept of oni has been proposed by Takahashi Masaaki (ja).[11]

But the oni was syncretized with Hindu-Buddhist creatures such as the man-devouring yaksha and the rakshasa, and became the oni who tormented sinners as wardens of Jigoku (Hell),[12] administering sentences passed down by Hell's magistrate, King Yama (Enma Daiō).[6] The hungry ghosts called gaki (餓鬼) has also been sometimes considered a type of oni (the letter "ki" 鬼 is also read "oni").[6][10]

Some scholars have even argued that the oni was entirely a concept of Buddhist mythology.[13]

Demon gate[edit]

A statue of a red oni wielding a kanabō.

According to Chinese Taoism and esoteric Onmyōdō, the ways of yin and yang, the northeasterly direction is termed the kimon (鬼門, "demon gate") and considered an unlucky direction through which evil spirits passed. Based on the assignment of the twelve zodiac animals to the cardinal directions, the kimon was also known as the ushitora (丑寅), or "Ox Tiger" direction. One theory is that the oni's bovine horns and tiger-skin loincloth developed as a visual depiction of this term.[14][15][16]

Temples are often built facing that direction, for example, Enryaku-ji was deliberately built on Mount Hiei which was in the kimon (northeasterly) direction from Kyoto in order to guard the capital, and similarly Kan'ei-ji was built towards that direction from Edo Castle.[17][18]

However, skeptics doubt this could have been the intial design of Enryaku-ji temple, since the temple was founded in 788, six years before Kyoto even existed as a capital, and if the ruling class were so feng shui minded, the subsequent northeasterly move of the capital from Nagaoka-kyō to Kyoto would have certainly been taboo.[19]

Also, Japanese buildings may sometimes have L-shaped indentions at the northeast to ward oni away, for example the walls surrounding the Kyoto Imperial Palace have notched corners in that direction[20]

Traditional culture[edit]

The traditional bean-throwing custom to drive out oni is practiced during Setsubun festival in February. It involves people casting roasted soybeans indoors or out of their homes and shouting "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("鬼は外!福は内!", "Oni go out! Blessings come in!").[21][22] This custom has grown from the medieval ritual of tsuina (Chinese: nuo) or oni-yarai, an year-end rite to drive away oni (ghosts).[21][23]

Regionally around Tottori Prefecture during this season, a charm made of holly-leaves and dried sardine heads are used as guard against oni.[23][24]

There is also a well known game in Japan called oni gokko (鬼ごっこ), which is the same as the game of tag that children in western countries play. The player who is "it" is instead called the "oni".[25][26]

Oni are featured in Japanese children's stories such as Momotaro (Peach Boy), Issun-bōshi, and Kobutori Jīsan.

In more recent times, oni have lost some of their original wickedness[citation needed] and sometimes take on a more protective function. Men in oni costumes often lead Japanese parades to dispel any bad luck, for example.

Japanese buildings sometimes include oni-faced roof tiles called onigawara (鬼瓦), which are thought to ward away bad luck, much like gargoyles in Western tradition.[27]

Many Japanese idioms and proverbs also make reference to oni. For example, the expression oya ni ninu ko wa oni no ko (親に似ぬ子は鬼の子) means literally "a child that does not resemble its parents is the child of an oni", and may be used by a parent to chastise a misbehaving child.[5]

Use in popular culture[edit]

  • Hiroshi Aramata's historical fantasy novel Teito Monogatari revolves around the exploits of an oni who is a lieutenant in the Japanese Imperial Army. Dr. Noriko Tsunoda Reider, professor of Japanese Language and Literature at Ohio State University, credits the novel with raising "the oni's status and popularity greatly in modern times".[28]
  • The Funny Little Woman is retelling of a folktale by Lafcadio Hearn, in which the chief character trails a rice dumpling into a den of oni (motif of Omusubi kororin (ja)).
  • In Season 4 of the animated TV series Jackie Chan Adventures, Jackie and his friends must locate the nine Oni masks, which contain the souls of Tarakudo, the Lord of all Oni.
  • In the video games series Onimusha, the Oni play a prominent role as a race of legendary warriors who could defeat evil demons, and ultimately the key to defeating the Demon King, Nobunaga Oda.
  • In Season 3 of Teen Wolf, the Oni are featured as the antagonists, who are on the hunt to find the Nogitsune, a dark Kitsune (fox spirit).
  • In the game Nioh, Oni are found as enemies.
  • In the manga and anime series Urusei Yatsura, one of the protagonists named Lum Invader belongs to a race of aliens that bears similarities to the oni.
  • In The Venture Bros. episode "I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills", Dr. Venture is pursued by an oni that followed him back from a trip to Japan.
  • In the eighth season of Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, one of the sixteen realms is a realm referred to as the "First Realm"/Realm of Oni and Dragons where Oni and Dragons battled over a child born of both, who left the realm to create Ninjago due to the perpetual war between the two sides. In addition, prominent artifacts in this season are the three "Oni Masks" of Vengeance, Hatred and Deception, which grant power to the wearer and possess the ability to resurrect the character Garmadon in his most evil form.
  • The Pokémon Electabuzz is based on an oni.
  • In the video game Overwatch the character Genji has a skin modeled and named after an Oni.
  • The character Conny in the manga and anime series How to Keep a Mummy is an oni child.
  • In the video game For Honor, the mask of the Shugoki represents the face of an Oni. He also wields a Kanabō, the weapon most popularly associated with of the Oni.

The manga Ao no Fuuin also known as Blue Seal by Shinohara Chie focus's mainly on the oni.

  • The trailer for the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Crimes of Grindelwald features a circus tent with a painted advertisement for a ONI ONI that matches very closely the description given here. Also seen on the poster is the Japanese character for "Oni", confirming the connection.
  • In the video game, Ultima Online, the expansion called Samurai Empire contains many monsters of Japanese mythology. The Oni is one such creature found on the islands called Tokuno. The Oni is a strong creature that possesses great strength and magical properties. It is modeled as a large beast with horns protruding from its head.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lim, Shirley; Ling, Amy (1992). Reading the literatures of Asian America. Temole University Press. p. 242. ISBN 0-87722-935-X. 
  2. ^ a b c d Reider (2003), p. 135.
  3. ^ Mack, Carol; Mack, Dinah (1998). A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits. Arcade Publishing. p. 116. ISBN 1-55970-447-0. 
  4. ^ Jones, David E. (2002). Evil in Our Midst: A Chilling Glimpse of Our Most Feared and Frightening Demons. Square One Publishers. p. 168. ISBN 0-7570-0009-6. 
  5. ^ a b Buchanan, Daniel Crump (1965). Japanese Proverbs and Sayings. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 136. ISBN 0-8061-1082-1. 
  6. ^ a b c Hackin, J.; Couchoud, Paul Louis (2005). Asiatic Mythology 1932. Kessinger Publishing. p. 443. ISBN 1-4179-7695-0. 
  7. ^ Turne, Patricia; Coulter, Charles Russell (2000). Dictionary of ancient deities. Oxford University Press. p. 363. ISBN 0-19-514504-6. 
  8. ^ a b Bush, Laurence C. (2001). Asian horror encyclopedia: Asian horror culture in literature, manga and folklore. Writers Club Press. p. 141. ISBN 0-595-20181-4. 
  9. ^ a b Reider (2003), pp. 134–135.
  10. ^ a b Kuki, Shūzō (2004). Kuki Shuzo: A Philosopher's Poetry and Poetics. Michale F. Marra (tr.). University of Hawaii Press. p. 218. ISBN 0824827554. 
  11. ^ Takahashi (1972) Shutendoji no tanjo: mou hitotsu no Nihon bunka 酒呑童子の誕生: もうひとつの日本文化, p. 41, cited in & Reider (2003), p. 135
  12. ^ Reider (2016), pp. 10–11, Reider (2016), p. 137
  13. ^ Anesaki & Ferguson (1928), The Mythology of all Races, p. 280, cited by Reider (2003), p. 314
  14. ^ Hastings, James (2003). Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Part 8. Kessinger Publishing. p. 611. ISBN 0-7661-3678-7. 
  15. ^ Reider (2010), p. 7.
  16. ^ Foster (2015), p. 119.
  17. ^ Havens, Norman; Inoue, Nobutaka (2006). "Konjin". An Encyclopedia of Shinto (Shinto Jiten): Kami. Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics Kokugakuin University. p. 98. 
  18. ^ Frédéric, Louis (2002). "Kan'ei-ji". Japan Encyclopedia. President and Fellows of Harvard College. p. 468. ISBN 0-674-00770-0. 
  19. ^ Huang Yung-jing 黄永融 (1993), master's thesis, "Fūsui shisō ni okeru gensokusei kara mita Heiankyō wo chūshin to suru Nihon kodai kyūto keikaku no bunseki 風水思想における原則性から見た平安京を中心とする日本古代宮都計画の分析", Kyoto Prefectural University, The Graduate School of Human Life Science. Cited by Yamada, Yasuhiko (1994). Hōi to Fūdo 方位と風土 . Kokin Shoin. p. 201. .
  20. ^ Parry, Richard Lloyd (1999). Tokyo, Kyoto & ancient Nara. Cadogan Guides. p. 246. : "the walls of the Imperial Palace have a notch in their top-right hand corner to confuse the evil spirits".
  21. ^ a b Foster (2015), p. 125.
  22. ^ Sosnoski, Daniel (1966). Introduction to Japanese culture. Charles E. Tuttle Publishing. p. 9. ISBN 0-8048-2056-2. 
  23. ^ a b Hearn, Lafcadio (1910). Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan: First and second series. Tauchnitz. p. 296. 
  24. ^ Ema, Tsutomu. Ema Tsutomu zenshū. 8. p. 412. 
  25. ^ Chong, Ilyoung (2002). Information Networking: Wired communications and management. Springer-Verlag. p. 41. ISBN 3-540-44256-1. 
  26. ^ Reider (2010), pp. 155–156.
  27. ^ Toyozaki, Yōko (2007). Nihon no ishokujū marugoto jiten 「日本の衣食住」まるごと事典 . IBC Publishing. p. 21. ISBN 4-89684-640-0. 
  28. ^ Reider (2010), p. 113.

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