Japanese Demons, or Oni (鬼) are creatures taken from Japanese tradition that can include any number of fantastical creatures and are found throughout Art, Literature, and Theater. Most Oni are portrayed as large, hideous creatures with long claws, crazy hair, and a pair of horns. For the most part, they are human-like in appearance but they will often have strange features such as numerous additional eyes, extra fingers and toes, or multi-colored skin – with red and blue being the most common shades. Additional features of most Oni include loincloths, and iron clubs, the latter of which has lead to the expression “oni-ni-kanabo” meaning “Oni with an iron club” a statement of invincibility or incredible strength.
The root of the word Oni, comes from the character “on’yomi” meaning to hide or conceal, referring to spirits or gods that cause problems. These invisible oni, which were blamed for disasters in ancient Japan, soon took on physical shapes in stories and songs and some of the features from Buddhist creatures such as Rakshasa and Yaksha.
In Chinese and Onmyodo tradition, the Northeast direction was known as Kimon or “Demon Gate” and was largely termed an unlucky direction because it was where evil spirits passed. The ox tiger, or zodiac creature assigned to that direction and many of its features – including fangs, claws, horns, and the tiger skin loincloth were taken and used to create the image of the oni seen today. Even today, buildings still stand that have L-shaped indents facing Norhteast to ward off Oni.
There are still some villages in Japan that hold festivals each year originally intended to drive away Oni. The most common time for these festivals is early spring, with the Setsuban festival the most famous. This festival involves people throwing soybeans outside of their homes and shouting “Demons out! Luck in!” Monkey statues are also used to ward off Oni spirits as the Japanes word for monkey, saru, also translates in the Kanji to “leaving”.
Recent history has seen a tailing of fear for the oni and the image has become more of a protective one, with men wearing oni costumes in Japanese parades to ward off bad luck. Oni have also taken on a comical role in much of Japanese literature for children and in manga and anime.