An artist depiction one the oni showing it looking similar to an ogre

Anthropology: The Mythology of the Japanese Oni and its Significance in Pop Culture

 Oni Overview

When hearing about mythology, my first thought goes to Greek Mythology. People are at least a little familiar with the Greek gods and goddesses. But, after that, my knowledge of any other myths is minimal. The oni is a figure in Japanese Mythology that I was first introduced to in MTV’s show “Teen Wolf”. Obviously, MTV is not the greatest source of folklore. So I will take this time to give a run down of what the Japanese Oni is and what they represent in Japan. Overall, the Oni are figures that resemble ogres or demons with yellow eyes that have horns coming out of their heads. In folklore, they are hungry for the blood of misbehaved children. 

Many cultures have a demonic figure to give the people someone or something to fear. In Japan, the Oni is their demonic, mythological figure. The idea of the Oni is no longer just local to Japanese culture, it has made its presence in American culture as well. So let’s take a look at the different myths and games where the Oni make their presence known. 

Yokai

To start off, Japanese folklore goes hand in hand with yokai. Yokai encompasses all of the supernatural beings that are present in Japanese folklore, at least to some extent. Mostly, Yokai includes demons, oni, shinigami, kitsune and many others. Also, most beings that are included in Yokai have the common trait of all being able to shape shift. From the earliest form of the Myths in the eighth century, beings that were described as Yokai were invisible to humans. Yokai is now the face of many mangas and animes, along with art and shown in select television shows.

Akuma

Akuma in art
An artistic depiction of the mythological figure, Akuma.

When reading Japanese Oni there I found a figure named Akuma. Prior to this research, I was only familiar with the Akuma from video games, like Tekken. I will discuss this more later. If you were to translate the Japanese character for Akuma, it would translate to “demon”. Akuma and Oni are two different ideas in Japanese Mythology.

In Christianity Akuma would be compared to the Devil. In art, he is shown as having horns coming out of his head and being surrounded by fire. He is shown to be tall and standing over others, exerting his power.

Akuma Myth in Tekken

Tekken is a Japanese combat game in which this myth is present. There is a boss character that comes up, and this character is Akuma. I have included a picture of the characters to show how they are similar yet also different. Seeing these two photos side by side, there is the red color present in both. This is to symbolize the fire in hell. Both are still powerful, frightening figures nonetheless.

Akuma in Tekken
Akuma boss character in the Tekken 7 video game.

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat
The Oni character shown in the Mortal Komat gameplay.

In the fashion of the Mortal Kombat movie that came out April 23rd, Tekken was not the only game which has traces of the Oni. Mortal Kombat is also a fighting game/movie franchise and they have characters which are rooted in the Japanese Oni. While I am a novice of Mortal Kombat’s gameplay, it’s the same premise of fighting in an arena and needing to be the victor. In one aspect of the franchise, there is a hierarchy of Oni who act as bosses. This is similar to Akuma being treated as the boss in Tekken.

In the video game, the oni have glowing yellow eyes with horns coming from their heads.This depiction stays true to others. The reason for the missing horns on the picture provided is because in this game there is many species of Oni.  There is also a story line within this franchise where a character by the name of Quan Chi is a former Oni. 

Quan Chi 

Oni example in Mortal Kombat

Quan Chi character in Mortal Kombat 11.

The character Quan Chi in Mortal Kombat is a specific antagonist.  Because he is referred to as an antagonist, he is the villain. Unlike the other Oni figures, his eyes appear to have a red glow instead of a yellow glow. People in the fandom (strong fans of the game) describe him as the most powerful sorcerer ever (with in the world of Mortal Kombat, of course, the most powerful sorcerer, in my opinion, would have to be Micky Mouse in “The Sorcerers Apprentice”).  

Quan Chin powers include shape shifting, stealing souls, reanimate the dead and he can even observe other realms. There are other powers he possess, but this was just to name a few.  Quan Chin was an Oni until he became so powerful in his sorcery, he was not an Oni character and is now a demon. 

The Significance of the Oni Mask

The Oni Mask is quite famous in the culture. This is actually what made me realize I wanted to research.

Example of an Oni Mask available for purchase
One example of an Oni Mask available for purchase off of Etsy.

the Oni. There is no typical “oni mask” or “correct mask”. They come in many different colors and shapes. What is common among all masks is that they show ugly faces. Since they are ugly, the facial expressions are usually angry with scrunched noses and typically horns as a symbol for demonic figures. When playing an Oni in the theater, acting with a mask on makes it easier to portray an evil being. There are even theories that the use of the mask is because the reading of the character means to “conceal”.

Decorative Oni Masks

There are different types of masks as well. The masks are very popular as decor today. This can be seen by simply researching “Oni Mask”. Many pages come up showing different styles of masks, some showing the horns, some without. In Japanese culture, these masks are used to scare children. Today, people use them as decorations in their houses and they are even becoming widely popular tattoos.

Setsubun

Anytime between February second through the fourth is when the festival is called Setsubun or the “Bean Throwing Festival”

Showing what is typically present during the bean throwing festival
Soy beans and Oni masks present for the. Setsubun festival.l”. The festival is popular among Japanese children in Tokyo. So, they take part in the festivities on television and in elementary schools.

The festival is to keep bad spirits away and welcome good fortune into the home. In order to celebrate this festival, families have someone in the family dress up in an Oni mask and chant “Demons out! Good fortune in!” while listening to this folk song. To even further the belief that the spring season will bring good luck, the people celebrating believe that if they say the same number of soy beans as their age, this gives them a better chance for a good season.

Oni in Pop Culture

In pop culture, Anime is becoming more popular among people in the US. Just ask my housemates, it’s our favorite pastime. There are many different kinds of Manga (Japanese comics or cartoons) or multiple anime, which include figures pertaining to yokai. For example, my favorite would be
“Death Note”, which includes a figure called Shinigami or otherwise known as the death spirit.

Peach Boy
Cartoon showing Momotaro and his parents when he was born from the peach.

Momotarō the Peach Boy

“The Peach Boy” is a fairytale which showcases the Oni itself. The tale follows Momotarō, which translates roughly to “Peach Boy”. Even though I have to fight every urge to think of James and the Giant Peach, the stories are not in the slightest related. Aside from the part where James more or less lived in the peach, Momotarō is delivered to his parents in a peach.

When he gets older, around age 15, he sets off on a journey. The journey is to travel to Orge Island, where the Oni reside. To help keep his country safe, he decided to go and fight the Orges and bring back treasure. Throughout the journey, Momotarō befriends talking animals that help him along the way. This includes a dog, money and a pheasant.

Through teamwork, the four of them were able to defeat the Orges (or oni) and they promised to stop being evil. After returning home, the Peach Boy brought wealth to his family and they lived happily ever after.

Ao no Fuuin cover
The cover of the Ao no Fuuin magna which shows the two main characters, Souko and Akria.

Ao no Fuuin

Another magna that showcases the Oni is “Ao no Fuuin” which translates to Blue Seal. The comic follows Kiryuu Souko, who is new to town and is extremely beautiful. When, actually Souko is actually the reincarnation of Ragou. Ragou is a beautiful immortal who rules the demons and ogres of the Earth. The person whom Souko falls in love with, Akira, is destined to an eternal war with Souko and her family.

The difference between families is that while Souko is immortal, Akira is not their family, just possess superhuman like qualities. It follows the two of them trying to find ways to make Souko human to stop her from becoming the new leader of the demon clan. This magna showcases many genres, from love, to fantasy, all while following the demon queen and, as we have established, the oni is just a form of yokai which includes demons and ogres. Ao no Fuuin has many layers and can keep the readers’ attention. I think this will be my next goal to read! 

Dungeons and Dragons 

If you’re a dedicated fan of a popular game Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D), I would hope you a

D & D Oni
The Avatar for the Oni character in the popular storytelling game, Dungeons and Dragons.

re familiar with the fact that the Oni are present within the game. D&D has been referenced (or changed for copyright reasons)  in Wizards of Waveryly Place and Riverdale. While these shows do not directly reference the Oni, they are still a part of the interactive mythical game. 

While I am a novice of all things D&D, I’ll let the people who can actually analyze the stats of the Oni do so. I will simply provide an overview. The Oni character within the game shares the same appearance I have been seeing. Looking much like an ogre with yellow glowing eyes. They are also able to shape shift, which helps with their hunger for blood. 

The Oni are magical creatures, so they are able to cast spells of invisibility, they can also charm others. For the Oni, this is beneficial, because then this allows them to manipulate others into getting what they want. Oni are inherently selfish and search to satisfy their own needs.

 

MTV’s Teen Wolf & Kitsune 

As I have started with the mentioning of Teen Wolf, it seemed appropriate that this comes full circle. Teen Wolf follows many mythical creatures, like werewolves, banshees, hellhounds and more. Not to be biased, but the season

Oni in Teen Wolf
The Oni which were used in MTV’s Teen Wolf

which featured the Oni was by far the best. The trend of Oni being creatures with glowing yellow eyes continues into the show. While the horns are not present on the masks they wear, the figures emit a black smoke which shows the horns.

The difference between the myth and the show was that the Oni here were protecting what was called a “Nogitsune”. This is a wild fox spirit which has taken possession of humans. The Oni wanted to keep it contained by any means necessary.  

Anthropology and Culture Today

In Japan, the Oni myth is present all over. We have seen this through the soybean festival (which I am now putting on my bucket list to see in person), video games and TV. Seeing the different ways ideas are presented in a culture, for example, paranormal things is so fascinating. 

I never thought about how other cultures viewed the Devil or other beings of that nature. After all the research I’ve conducted on the Oni, the myths people grow up on in Japan seem very engaging (and scary, as they are intended to be).

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