Japan has a lot of cultures and rituals that are absent from most Western countries. This is because Japan is a unique country historically and geographically. This forms an “only in Japan” way of living and beliefs.
Oni (鬼), which translated means Evil or Demon, is one of the more mysterious creatures you can find in Japan. The word Oni comes from the word "On" (隠) which means something to hide or be hidden. These creatures are a representation of something evil or scary, and are bad spirits which tend to “hide” or “are hidden”.
Quick Facts about Oni
- Oni are a type of Japanese yokai, which means supernatural or strange creature.
- Sometimes oni have three eyes instead of two.
- They may also be presented as large and ogre-like.
- In the modern era, Oni are sometimes depicted as protectors instead of as evil.
- These creatures can be one of a variety of colors, with each representing a color representing a desire.
- During the Setsuban Festival, adults wear Oni masks and children throw beans at them.
How did Oni originate?
The Oni were born from the great imagination of the people. They were often described as big and powerful creatures with unreliable inhuman personalities. Even today in Japan, these creatures are still sometimes used to describe evilness, fright or terror in something. One humorous example of this is the word "Oniyome" (鬼嫁), which means "scary wife".
What do Oni look like?
Oni have one or two horns on their heads, and wear yellow shorts. They may be holding a golden rod or an iron club, and have sharp teeth.
These creatures do not go through physical transformations like vampires or werewolves. They are born as Oni, and usually live in caves of deep forests where humans seldom visit unless they get lost.
What gender are Oni?
Oni are typically male, but there are also female Oni. Female Oni do not appear as frequently in traditional Japanese folklore, but have started to show up in various Japanese animation series. Female Oni are treated more as fantasy creatures which makes their impression less scary.
What are the meaning of the Onis' colors?
Oni can be one of five different colors. Each color represents one of the five worldly desires from Buddhism.
The most popular color is red, and it is called Akaoni (赤鬼), which means "Red Oni" in English. The second famous color is blue, Aooni (青鬼), and this type tags along with the red type.
The remaining ones are yellow or white, green, and black. Each desire is listed below along with its corresponding color of Oni:
Five worldly desires / Gogai (五蓋)
Tonyoku (貪欲) lust – Red
Shinni (瞋恚) hatred, anger – Blue
Osa (悪作) regret, agitation – Yellow
Konjin (惛沈) laziness, sleep – Green
Gwakui (疑惑) doubt – Black
In Buddhism, there are 103 worldly desires in addition to these main desires. They are considered fundamental obstacles for the path of spiritual liberation. This is evidence that the frequent appearance of Oni in Japanese folklore is influenced by Buddhism.
The sharing of these folklore stories are attempts to educate people about worldly desires so that the people will be able to control or eliminate these desires. One such story is the Kobutori Jisan (こぶとり爺さん), a story of an old man who got rid of his lump by an Oni.
During the popular festival of Setsuban (節分), the Japanese people learn that there are five common colors of Oni and they represent the teaching of the five worldly desires in Buddhism. During this traditional Japanese festival, you can manifest the desires you want to do away with by throwing out soybeans at each colored Oni.
The festival is held on February 3, the second day of Risshun (立春), when people celebrate the arrival of spring. In the traditional Asian calendar, a year is divided into four seasons and each season lasts three months. For example, the first day of spring is Risshun which lasts until Rikka (立夏), the first day of summer, which is scheduled around the beginning of May.
Setsubun used to be set as a celebration day of a new year when people hoped for a better life and a good harvest. From ancient times, crops including soybeans were believed to own a power to remove evil spirits. That is how Setsubun rituals started. These rituals were passed on among Japanese people for hundreds of years.
When people throw out soybeans, they say out loud “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi" (鬼は外、福は内), which means “devils out, fortune in”. At the end of the Setsubun, your house is full of thrown soybeans!