Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present

Synopsis

Oni, ubiquitous supernatural figures in Japanese literature, lore, art, and religion, usually appear as demons or ogres. Characteristically threatening, monstrous creatures with ugly features and fearful habits, including cannibalism, they also can be harbingers of prosperity, beautiful and sexual, and especially in modern contexts, even cute and lovable. There has been much ambiguity in their character and identity over their long history. Usually male, their female manifestations convey distinctivly gendered social and cultural meanings.

Oni appear frequently in various arts and media, from Noh theater and picture scrolls to modern fiction and political propaganda, They remain common figures in popular Japanese anime, manga, and film and are becoming embedded in American and international popular culture through such media. Noriko Reiderys book is the first in English devoted to oni. Reider fully examines their cultural history, multifaceted roles, and complex significance as "others" to the Japanese.

Excerpt

On the last day of Winter, setsubun, the parting of the seasons, people perform a ceremony at temples and in many private houses where they throw beans at imagined or impersonated frightening figures called oni. When they throw the beans they shout: “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” (Oni get out, luck come in). On this year’s setsubun a foreign colleague participated in this ceremony at a temple only to find himself to be the target of people throwing beans and shouting “oni wa soto!” He found himself looked at as if he were an oni. For what reason would he have been considered to be an oni?

It is difficult to translate the term oni because an oni is a being with many facets. It may be imagined as some ambiguous demon, or it may be impersonated as an ugly and frightening humanlike figure, an ogre. However, it is not an intrinsically evil creature of the kind, like the devil, who, in monotheistic religions, is the personification of everything that is evil. the difficulty in describing oni, is in itself, it seems to me, part of the oni’s character as a basically elusive and ambiguous creature. At setsubun, when people throw beans to dispel the oni, they do it with so much fun so that the onlooker may get the impression that an oni is nothing more than a character from children’s stories. Yet, as Noriko Reider eloquently shows in this volume, there is much more to an oni. in fact, it can be said that this figure and its actions let us have a glimpse at how the Japanese imagine their own world in its relation with the outside. This relation is continually reinterpreted according to the change of times. For that reason, oni are not simply a product of naïve beliefs of a remote past, they are alive to an astonishing degree still today. the experience of my colleague mentioned above may well be taken as a sign of the oni’s continued actuality. the changes as well as the continuity in the image of the oni, are the topic of this volume. Here I do not plan to summarize Reider’s argument, because to do so would only take away a good deal of its fascination. However, a recent experience of mine might help to prepare the reader for how complex the concept “oni” in fact is.

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