I’ve been playing a lot of Monster Hunter Generations lately. A lot. Too much, even – so I decided to heed those words Nintendo games have become so famous for: “remember to take a break!” So I did. I had just beaten a Hyper Tetsucabra in a quest that referred to it as the Demon Toad. I recalled that in Japan, Tetsucabra is called the “onigaeru,” (鬼蛙) which fits nicely with its aforementioned and fairly literal English moniker.
Yet, somehow, the two names pulled two separate feelings from me, which I finally pinned as a conflict between my English and Japanese referents for each word: demon, and Oni. How did the “Oni” (鬼) prefix become associated with demons, monsters, and fictional classes like Final Fantasy’s Berserker or Fire Emblem Fates’ Oni Chieftain? Where does the myth of their superhuman strength and tendency for violence originate?
A humble and oft forgotten museum at the base of Kyoto prefecture’s secluded Mt. Ōe has the answers we’re looking for.
I had first visited the Oni Cultural Exchange Museum on Halloween, hearing rumors that the mountain had a deep connection to Japanese folklore. Anyone who announces their plans to visit the mountain to a local will be met with the same heartfelt admonishment: “be weary of Oni,” an utterance whose transmission to modern times is comparable to the western world’s “bless you” and thus indicative of the cultural impact of the Oni legend itself. Indeed, one such Oni comes to mind – and while his origin stories are many, there is no disputing that in legend, Mt. Ōe served as the home to Shūten-Dōji, one of Japan’s three legendary Yōkai – a word that in and of itself needs no introduction. The tale of Shūten-Dōji shares no such luxury.
The story of Shūten-Dōji begins as somewhat of a side quest during the Genpei War (1180 – 1185) – a bloody conflict that broke out between the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) clans during the latter end of the otherwise peaceful Heian era, immortalized in Japan’s most famous war chronicle, The Tale of the Heike. Stories of a beast who descended from the mountains to the north into the village of Ōe to kidnap and consume the daughters of Japanese nobles (an important detail, because if you weren’t a noble, the Capital didn’t care about you). After unceasing reports of such incidents reached the capital, a team of six was dispatched to investigate the matter. What happens next is a matter of myth.
The story itself is a product of social forces and contexts similar to those that moved Washington Irvine to pen The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – religious, and driven by fear. By the time of the Genpei War, Oni had already been a part of Japanese folklore for 300 years. “The second volume of the Nihon Shoki [one of Japan’s founding texts],” the Museum’s Director, Ikuo Shiomi, explains to me in a guided tour of the museum, “refers to a custom called Na, whose purpose was to drive away evil spirits.” The custom was likely a result brought about by a pandemic that swept across Japan: “living was often a miserable endeavor in those times. People needed a way to justify the hardships brought to their doorstep by the forces of nature, and did so by personifying misfortune as something that is delivered to them by a messenger from another realm.” Mr. Shiomi believes that this ‘demonification’ of elements within natural world is a potential birthplace of Oni Folklore.
The six Minamoto emissaries traveled toward Ōe, but were stopped near the foothills of the village by an old man, an envoy of the gods who bestowed upon them a poisonous Sake to present to Shūten-Dōji, a gift from Hachiman and the deities of the surrounding provinces. They were stopped again by noblewomen washing bloodied clothes by the river, who revealed to them the location of Shūten-Dōji’s dwelling. Knowing very well that brandishing a sword would mean the end of the convoy, Yorimitsu presented Shūten-Dōji and his minions with the holy sake and meat.
Two themes make what comes next vital: nobility and ancestry. As my old mentor once put it, “These people [Japanese nobles] were colossal snobs.” Life outside of the capital didn’t concern the nobility, who were often caught up in their own inter-familial dramas. To this day, people in Japan use the capital as passive reference point for travel: even if you’re bound north for Hokkaido from Tokyo, you use the word kudaru – literally meaning to descend – to accentuate the fact you are lowering yourself in status by leaving the capital. It is a matter of status, not physical space – and it is no surprise, then, that it was inside these haughty noble courts that Na was adopted into religious practice.
Mr. Shiomi walked to a quiet corner of the museum, “This is quite an old tradition,” he said, gesturing toward a few contemporary photos of villagers dressed in crude Oni costumes, “these are local New Years celebrations. A villager dresses up as an Oni and walks around the village, asking children if they’ve been well-behaved and obedient under the threat of eating them had they not.” The cheerful director allowed himself a brief chuckle, and continued. “There is also Setsubun, a New Year’s celebration in February to ward off evil spirits – personified by a monstrous Oni.” To farmers, February was the real beginning of the New Year: It was the date of the final harvest before a long and barren Winter, and as with any hardship, was accompanied with a celebration to ward off those “messengers of misfortune.”
These celebrations are echoes of a ritual adopted by the royal court and the nobility in the tenth century, called tsuina – but nothing leaves the court without going through Buddhism first. The popularity of tsuina traditions were infused into Buddhism as it spread across Japan, using the concept of “evil spirits” to deliver admonishments to a superstitious populace through performances. The practice resonated well with Buddhism and served one of many intersections with Shinto – Japan’s decentralized native religion – as both had an unnamed referent for such a being: Buddhism had suffering spirits caught in the mortal realm (called Preta, adopted from Hinduism), and Shinto had Kami, the deified spirit of a being that has since become god-like. Many people believed that sagacity and strength exceeding that of a human belonged to ancestral spirits, and since Oni were both strong and sagacious beings, they were even often deified together with Preta. “Rather than a demon or monster, Oni were thought to be the second face of the Kami coin.” Many of these shrines exist today, scattered about Japan. “One such enshrined Oni is on this mountain.”
Whilst Shūten-Dōji slipped into a holy sake-induced hangover, Yorimitsu and his entourage acted quickly: killing his minions (who each in name have their own legends), and severing the foul Ogre’s head. It wasn’t enough. The head of Shūten-Dōji flew across the air, enraged, landing on the shoulders of one of Yorimitsu’s men, nearly biting his head clean off. The troupe regrouped to detain Shūten-Dōji’s head, and tied it to a large, wooden bucket to carry back to the capital. They stopped at a river to purify the head, as it was uncouth to bring such uncleansed filth into Kyoto. The head never made it to the capital. It is said they were forced to bury it after mysteriously becoming too heavy to carry on the foothills of a castle near the border of the Tamba Province.
“There are many other versions of the tale,” Mr. Shiomi tells me, opening a set of woodblock prints depicting the battle with Shūten-Dōji, “at the time of The Tale of the Genji (1021), for example, Shūten-Dōji was depicted as a handsome young man whose true monstrous appearance was only revealed when put to sleep with Sake.” I laughed at the specificity of the circumstances. “Transformation was a popular theme of Japanese folklore in these times, though.” Roughly 73% of Japan’s terrain is mountainous, and that feeling of isolation one senses when deep in the woods was thought to be a product of entering a spiritual domain – a realm of Kami, where mortals did not belong.
“Many monks turned to the mountains for isolated meditation, earning the name as Yamabushi. (Mountain Warriors.) Exposed to the elements, their skin might turn red, their hair grow long, their appearance grotesque – a form that resembled another figure in Japanese folklore, the Tengu.” Fearful merchants who walked the mountains might encounter these Mountain Warriors and think they’d run into one or the other. “Like Oni, Tengu were otherworldly sagacious beings with strong connections to spirituality. Someone who spent much time in the mountains was said to be close to the kami. Knowledge and isolation was a gateway into a person’s being for Tengu as hatred and anger were gateways into a person for an Oni.” Tengu were said to be Yamabushi who’d been taken over by the spirit of a dead Emperor, whilst Oni were largely associated with local legends, humans turned into supernatural beings by one angry ancestral Kami or another.
The legend of Shūten-Dōji perpetuated over time, earning its own fairy tale book in the Edo period, earning itself several musical and theatrical appearances, and later entering Elementary school Japanese Language textbooks in the Meiji era (it was eventually pushed out of them in the Showa era, an interesting story in and of itself). Even through the modern era, the “face” of an Oni changed. Mr. Shiomi walked along the inner wall of the circular museum, on which hung at least a hundred Oni busts, taken from different temples and shrines representing all eras of Japanese history.
“The earliest physical depiction of what became known as an Oni came from Korean Buddhism,” the director said, pointing to a tablet with a floral design. “Then in great times of famine, they gained cow-like faces. In Shrines, they were often seen with dragons, who themselves were deities of water and symbols of purity and protection.” He pointed to an absolutely massive tablet that marked the center of the wall: “This one was hung in a Buddhist temple further west of here. It was hung at the entrance along wooden rafters to show their authority – because smaller temples didn’t have the structural integrity to support something this heavy.”
We laughed as we passed through the Muromachi period and arrived at the Meiji era Oni, which were depicted with broader faces, longer noses, and mustaches. “A lot of people in the modern era, though, started wondering ‘Why do Oni have to be vicious? Why can’t they be cute, or nice, or virtuous?’ and in that way, the public view has changed them from something that adults fear into something, how do I say…people might pity, or be fond of.” Children still play games of tag called Onigokko, where you are the Oni if you are “It.”
Here is where you begin to see the adoption of the Oni prefix: it refers not to a terrible creature, but rather something ordinary that has been brought into the realm of supernatural by way of being a vessel to an angry spirit or Kami – not entirely possessed, yet not entirely itself. When you hear “Demon Toad” in English, you think of something implicitly monstrous that flies right out of the gates of Hell – but “Onigaeru” falls on my ears differently. There’s a strange sense of unease – that you are facing something that was perhaps once normal, but now has the composure of something otherworldly. It is strong, furious, and has an insatiable appetite – what’s worse, its ancient conscious knows far more than you.
You may not be able to poison it with Sake, but you can at least make use of Tinged Meat the next time you fight Tetsucabra to pay homage to Oni name.