We have taken a closer look at the symbology of these creatures from Japanese folklore. Even centuries on their role is far from clear, so it’s better to tread carefully…
We could translate the Japanese word “Oni” as “demon”, “devil” or “ogre”.
And any one of these terms would do since what we are talking about here is a common figure in traditional Japanese visual art as well as the literature and theatre of the land of the Rising Sun.
Oni are often depicted as horrendous creatures with sharp claws, wild hair and a pair of horns on their enormous heads. They are not so dissimilar from humans but there are some with three eyes or more than ten fingers (or toes) and they are generally blue or red in colour.
They dress simply in a tiger skin loincloth, and in their hands they carry an iron club called a kanabo. This explains their Japanese name “oni-ni-kanabo” which means “Oni with an iron club” and is also used to describe someone who is invincible. Basically, this creature is the strongest of the strong, bringing to mind the track from the American metal band Pantera “Strength beyond strength”.
Legend has it that the Oni were originally invisible spirits, bringers of disease, pestilence and misfortune. In some tales they were actually ghosts with the unfortunate habit of eating people.
However with the arrival of Buddhism and Indian figures such as the Rakshasa or Yaksha, Oni began to have more in common with humans and another infernal creature, the Jinn of Arabian origin, to which it bears a strong resemblance.
Some Japanese villages still hold ceremonies every year at the start of spring to chase away these demonic spirits, though it must be said that over the centuries, the Oni have lost much of their original wickedness and even come to play the role of a protective spirit warding off evil. This explains why some Japanese buildings have roof tiles with the face of an Oni, (called “onigawara”) which are believed to bring good fortune and prosperity.
There is a Japanese proverb: “Oya ni Ninu ko wa oni no ko” which literally means “a child that does not resemble its parents is the child of an Oni”. This is used to describe those children who are so unlike their parents – in terms of appearance or character – that they seem to be a joke played on the family by the Oni.
Nowadays Oni are generally described as spirits of the dead, ancestors, revenge, pestilence or famine.
And their main characteristic, rather than that of being bringers of good or evil, is that of never quite managing to pass unobserved. Because, when we are simply unable to avoid them, Oni are still creatures which deserve our utmost attention. And if we put a foot wrong, they would notice right away, and then we mere mortals would find ourselves in all sorts of trouble…