An oni menaces the monk Kūkai as he practices the tantra.[1] Painting by Hokusai (1760–1849).
An oni menaces the monk Kūkai as he practices the tantra.[1] Painting by Hokusai (1760–1849).

An oni ( (おに)) is a kind of yōkai, demon, orc, ogre, or troll in Japanese folklore. Oni are mostly known for their fierce and evil nature manifested in their propensity for murder and cannibalism. Notwithstanding their evil reputation, oni possess intriguingly complex aspects that cannot be brushed away simply as evil. They are typically portrayed as hulking figures with one or more horns growing out of their heads.[2] Stereotypically, they are conceived of as red, blue, black, yellow, or white-colored, wearing loincloths of tiger pelt, and carrying iron kanabō clubs.[2] They are creatures which instill fear and feelings of danger due to their grotesque outward appearance, their wild and sometimes strange behavior and their powers.

They are popular characters in Japanese art, literature, and theater[3] and appear as stock villains in the well-known fairytales of Momotarō (Peach Boy), Issun-bōshi, and Kobutori Jīsan. Although Oni have been described as frightening creatures, they have become tamer in modern culture as people tell less frightening stories about them like Oni Mask and Red Oni Who Cried.

Shuten-dōji has been regarded as the most famous and strongest oni in Japan. The legend of Shuten-dōji has been described since the 14th century in various arts, traditional performing arts and literature such as emakimono, jōruri, noh and kabuki. The tachi (Japanese long sword) "Dōjigiri" with which Minamoto no Yorimitsu decapitated Shuten-dōji' in the legend is now designated as a National Treasure and one of the Tenka-Goken (Five Greatest Swords Under Heaven).[4][5]


Sessen Doji Offering His Life to an Ogre (Japanese Oni), hanging scroll, color on paper, c. 1764. Painting by Soga Shōhaku (1730–1781).
Sessen Doji Offering His Life to an Ogre (Japanese Oni), hanging scroll, color on paper, c. 1764. Painting by Soga Shōhaku (1730–1781).

Depictions of yokai oni vary widely but usually portray them as hideous, gigantic ogre-like creatures with a single horn or multiple horns emerging from their heads,[6] with sharp claws, wild hair, and fang-like tusks.[7]

They are often depicted wearing tiger-skin loincloths and carrying iron clubs called kanabō (金棒).[6] 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.[8][9]

Their skin may have various colors, but red, blue, and green are particularly common.[10][11] They may sometimes also be depicted as black-skinned, or yellow-skinned.[6]

They may occasionally be depicted with a third eye on their forehead,[6][12] or extra fingers and toes.[12]

They are predominantly male but can be female. Females becoming oni has been attributed to them being overcome with grief or jealousy.[13]

Oni can come in many different sizes ranging in both weight and height.[13]


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".[14][15]

The character for oni, 鬼 (pinyin: guǐ; Jyutping: gwai2) in Chinese also means a dead or ancestral spirit, and not necessarily an evil specter.[14] Accordingly, Chinese (Taoist) origins for the concept of oni have been proposed.[16] Particularly powerful oni may be described as kishin or kijin (literally "oni god"; the "ki" is an alternate character reading of "oni"), a term used in Japanese Buddhism to refer to Wrathful Deities.

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 Hell (Jigoku),[17] administering sentences passed down by Hell's magistrate, King Yama (Enma Daiō).[10] The hungry ghosts called gaki (餓鬼) have also been sometimes considered a type of oni (the Kanji for "ki" 鬼 is also read "oni").[10][15] Accordingly, a wicked soul beyond rehabilitation transforms into an oni after death. Only the very worst people turn into oni while alive, and these are the oni causing troubles among humans as presented in folk tales.[18]

Some scholars have even argued that the oni was entirely a concept of Buddhist mythology.[19]

Oni bring calamities to the land, bringing about war, plague/illness, earthquakes, and eclipses.[20] They have the destructive power of lightning and thunder, which terrifies people through their auditory and visual effects.

Oni have a massive appetite for human flesh and can eat a person in a single gulp. They are said to suck in a human's vital energy and devour her or his flesh. Oni are capable of transforming into both male and female forms at will, and can change from their grotesque form to a handsome man so that they can gain the trust of their victim.[13]

Demon gate

Oni, as illustrated in Konjaku Gazu Zoku Hyakki by Toriyama Sekien.
Oni, as illustrated in Konjaku Gazu Zoku Hyakki by Toriyama Sekien.
This oni (ogre) tramples a hapless villain in Beppu, Oita, Oita Prefecture, a famous onsen hot springs resort on the island of Kyushu in Japan.
This oni (ogre) tramples a hapless villain in Beppu, Oita, Oita Prefecture, a famous onsen hot springs resort on the island of Kyushu in Japan.

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 hypothesis is that the oni's bovine horns and tiger-skin loincloth developed as a visual depiction of this term.[21][22][23]

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.[24][25]

However, skeptics doubt this could have been the initial 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.[26]

Japanese buildings may sometimes have L-shaped indentations at the northeast to ward against oni. For example, the walls surrounding the Kyoto Imperial Palace have notched corners in that direction.[27]

Traditional culture

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!"), preferably by a strong wrestler.[28][29] This custom has grown from the medieval ritual of tsuina (追儺, Chinese: nuo ) or oni-yarai, a year-end rite to drive away oni (ghosts).[28][30]

Regionally around Tottori Prefecture during this season, a charm made of holly leaves and dried sardine heads are used as a guard against oni.[30][31]

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 the Western world play. The player who is "it" is instead called the "oni".[32][33]

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

Modern times

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.

Onigawara on the roof of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
Onigawara on the roof of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

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.[34]

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) (Translation: "A child that does not resemble its parents is the child of an oni.") may be used by a parent to chastise a misbehaving child.[9]

They can be used in stories to frighten children into obeying because of their grotesque appearance, savage demeanor, as well as how they can eat people in a single gulp.[20]


  1. Momotaro, the Peach Boy,[35] is a well-known story about an elderly couple having the misfortune of never being able to conceive a child, but they find a giant peach that miraculously gives them a boy as their child. As the boy grows, he is made aware of an island of demons where the people are captured and, after their money is taken, kept as slaves and a source of food. Momotaro sets out to travel to the island with some cakes specially made for him, and while on his journey, he meets a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant who partner up with him to defeat the demons on the island, and once the demons have been taken out they recover the treasures and return them to the rightful owners. Momotaro and his companions, after accomplishing their goal, all return to their respective homes.
  2. Oni Mask[36] is a story where a young girl goes off to work at a ladies' house to make money for her ailing mother. She talks to a mask of her mother's face once she is done with her work to comfort herself. One day, the curious coworkers see the mask and decide to prank her by putting on an oni mask to replace the mother's mask. Seeing the Oni mask, she takes it as a sign that her mother is worse and not getting better, so she leaves after alerting her boss. After trying to run to her mother's side, she is sidetracked by some men gambling by a campfire. The men catch her and ignore her pleas to let her go to her mother and instead make her watch the fire so it does not go out during the game. While she is stoking the fire, she decides to put on the Oni mask to protect her from the flames. At that moment, the men see only a brightly lit Oni through the red glowing flames and, terrified, run away without gathering their money. The girl, after having made sure the fire would not go out, gathers the money, and waits for the men to return for it, but as time grows, she remembers she was going to see her mother and runs to her mother. While she is at home, she sees her mother is healthier than before, and because of the money the gamblers left behind, she has enough to take care of her without going back to work at the ladies' house.
  3. Red Oni Who Cried[13] is a story of two oni, one red the other blue. The red one wants to befriend humankind, but they are afraid of it, making the red oni cry. Knowing what the red oni wants, the blue oni devises a plan to make himself the villain by attacking the houses of the humans and allowing the red oni to save the humans from the blue oni, making the red oni a hero to the humans' eyes. After the humans see the red oni protect them from the blue oni, they determine that the red one is a good oni whom they would like to be friends with, which is what the red one wanted. Seeing this exchange, the blue oni decides to leave so as not to cause any misunderstanding with the humans. When the red oni decides to go home to his friend the blue oni, he notices that the blue oni is gone and realizes what the blue oni has done for him and cries from being touched by the blue oni's thoughtfulness and wonderful friendship.


In popular culture

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The oni remains a very popular motif in Japanese popular culture. Their varied modern depiction sometimes relies on just one or two distinctive features which mark a character as an oni, they will always have horns and will sometimes have a distinctive skin colour, but such a depiction might otherwise appear human and entirely lack the fearsome or grotesque features of traditional oni. The context of oni in popular culture is similarly varied, with instances such as appearances in animated cartoons, video games and use as commercial mascots.

See also



  1. ^ Singer, R. (1998). Edo - Art in Japan, 1615-1868. National Gallery of Art. p. 37.
  2. ^ a b "Oni." Handbook of Japanese Mythology, by Michael Ashkenazi, ABC-CLIO, 2003, pp. 230–233.
  3. ^ Lim, Shirley; Ling, Amy (1992). Reading the literatures of Asian America. Temole University Press. p. 242. ISBN 978-0-87722-935-3.
  4. ^ 酒呑童子を退治した天下五剣「童子切安綱」 Naoya Japanese Sword Museum Nagoya Touken World.
  5. ^ Shuten-dōji. Kotobank.
  6. ^ a b c d Reider (2003), p. 135.
  7. ^ Mack, Carol; Mack, Dinah (1998). A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits. Arcade Publishing. p. 116. ISBN 978-1-55970-447-2.
  8. ^ Jones, David E. (2002). Evil in Our Midst: A Chilling Glimpse of Our Most Feared and Frightening Demons. Square One Publishers. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-7570-0009-6.
  9. ^ a b Buchanan, Daniel Crump (1965). Japanese Proverbs and Sayings. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 136. ISBN 978-0-8061-1082-0.
  10. ^ a b c Hackin, J.; Couchoud, Paul Louis (2005). Asiatic Mythology 1932. Kessinger Publishing. p. 443. ISBN 978-1-4179-7695-9.
  11. ^ Turne, Patricia; Coulter, Charles Russell (2000). Dictionary of ancient deities. Oxford University Press. p. 363. ISBN 978-0-19-514504-5.
  12. ^ a b Bush, Laurence C. (2001). Asian horror encyclopedia: Asian horror culture in literature, manga, and folklore. Writers Club Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-595-20181-5.
  13. ^ a b c d "Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present: Reider, Noriko T: Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming." Internet Archive, Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1 Jan. 1970,
  14. ^ a b Reider (2003), pp. 134–135.
  15. ^ a b Kuki, Shūzō (2004). Kuki Shuzo: A Philosopher's Poetry and Poetics. Michale F. Marra (tr.). University of Hawaii Press. p. 218. ISBN 978-0824827557.
  16. ^ Reider (2003), p. 135, apud Takahashi, Masaaki [ja] (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.
  17. ^ Reider (2016), pp. 10–11, Reider (2016), p. 137
  18. ^ Leslie Ormandy (7 Aug 2017 ). The Morals of Monster Stories: Essays on Children's Picture Book Messages. McFarland, ISBN 9781476627694 p. 94
  19. ^ Anesaki & Ferguson (1928), The Mythology of all Races, p. 280, cited by Reider (2003), p. 314
  20. ^ a b Roberts, Jeremy. Japanese Mythology A to Z. Chelsea House Publishers, 2010.
  21. ^ Hastings, James (2003). Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. Part 8. Kessinger Publishing. p. 611. ISBN 978-0-7661-3678-6.
  22. ^ Reider (2010), p. 7.
  23. ^ Foster (2015), p. 119.
  24. ^ Havens, Norman kebab; Inoue, Nobutaka (2006). "Konjin". An Encyclopedia of Shinto (Shinto Jiten): Kami. Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics Kokugakuin University. p. 98. ISBN 9784905853084.
  25. ^ Frédéric, Louis (2002). "Kan'ei-ji". Japan Encyclopedia. President and Fellows of Harvard College. p. 468. ISBN 978-0-674-00770-3.
  26. ^ 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. ISBN 9784772213929.
  27. ^ Parry, Richard Lloyd (1999). Tokyo, Kyoto & ancient Nara. Cadogan Guides. p. 246. ISBN 9781860119170.: "the walls of the Imperial Palace have a notch in their top-right hand corner to confuse the evil spirits".
  28. ^ a b Foster (2015), p. 125.
  29. ^ Sosnoski, Daniel (1966). Introduction to Japanese culture. Charles E. Tuttle Publishing. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-8048-2056-1.
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  31. ^ Ema, Tsutomu. Ema Tsutomu zenshū. Vol. 8. p. 412.
  32. ^ Chong, Ilyoung (2002). Information Networking: Wired communications and management. Springer-Verlag. p. 41. ISBN 978-3-540-44256-1.
  33. ^ Reider (2010), pp. 155–156.
  34. ^ 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 978-4-89684-640-9.
  35. ^ Chiba, Kotaro. Tales of Japan: Traditional Stories of Monsters and Magic. Chronicle Books, 2019.
  36. ^ Fujita, Hiroko, et al. Folktales from the Japanese Countryside. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.
  37. ^ "We Are Japanese Goblin". YouTube.
  38. ^ Frank, Allegra (2016-11-04). "Playing Heroes of the Storm gets Overwatch fans a special skin". Polygon. Retrieved 2021-06-08.