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. Not withstanding 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.[1] Stereotypically, they are conceived of as red, blue, black, yellow, or white-colored, wearing loincloths of tiger pelt, and carrying iron kanabō clubs.[1]A creature instills fear and danger from their grotesque outward appearance to their wild and strange behaviors and dangerous powers.

They are popular characters in Japanese art, literature, and theater[2] and appear as stock villains in the well-known fairytales of Momotarō (Peach Boy), Issun-bōshi, and Kobutori Jīsan. Although Oni have been told 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.


Sessen Doji Offering His Life to an Ogre (Japanese Oni), hanging scroll, color on paper, c. 1764

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,[3] with sharp claws, wild hair, and fang-like tusks.[4]

They are often depicted wearing tiger-skin loincloths and carrying iron clubs called kanabō (金棒).[3] 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.[5][6]

Their skin may be any number of colors, but red, blue, and green are particularly common.[7][8] They may sometimes also be depicted as black-skinned, or yellow-skinned.[3]

They may occasionally be depicted with a third eye on their forehead,[3][9] or extra fingers and toes.[9]

They are predominantly male but they can be female because of being overcome with grief or jealousy.[10]

Oni can come from many different sizes ranging from weight to height.[10]


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".[11][12]

The character for oni, 鬼 (pinyin: guǐ; Jyutping: gwai2) in Chinese also means a dead or ancestral spirit, and not necessarily an evil specter.[11] Accordingly, Chinese (Taoist) origins for the concept of oni has been proposed.[13] 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),[14] administering sentences passed down by Hell's magistrate, King Yama (Enma Daiō).[7] The hungry ghosts called gaki (餓鬼) has also been sometimes considered a type of oni (the Kanji for "ki" 鬼 is also read "oni").[7][12] 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.[15]

Some scholars have even argued that the oni was entirely a concept of Buddhist mythology.[16]

Oni bring calamities to the land, bringing about war, plague/illness, earthquakes, and eclipses.[17] 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 is capable of transforming into both male and female forms at will, where they change from their grotesque form to a handsome man so that they can gain the trust of their victim.[18]

Demon gateEdit

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.

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.[19][20][21]

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.[22][23]

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.[24]

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.[25]

Traditional cultureEdit

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.[26][27] 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).[26][28]

Regionally around Tottori Prefecture during this season, a charm made of holly leaves and dried sardine heads are used as guard against oni.[28][29]

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".[30][31]

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

Modern timesEdit

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.

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.[32]

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.[6]

They are told as a nightmare for children to obey because of their grotesque appearance, savage demeanor, as well as how they can eat people in a single gulp.[33]


  1. Momotaro, the Peach Boy,[34] is a well-known story about an elderly couple having the misfortune of never being able to conceive a child and have found a giant peach that had granted them the miracle of giving them a boy as their child. As the boy grows, he is made aware of an island of demons where the people are captured as slaves and a source of food where they take the people's money. Momotaro sets out to travel to the island with some cakes specially made for him, and while on his journey, he meets a dog, 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 plunder the treasures and return them to the rightful owners. Momotaro and his companions, after accomplishing their goal they all return to their respective homes. This story tells how demons are where they take from people, make them slaves, and eat people.
  2. Oni Mask[35] it 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 with a lite campfire. The men catch her and ignore her pleas of letting her go for her mother and instead 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 not to burn herself from the flames. At that moment, the men see only a brightly lit Oni from the red glowing flames and terrified run away without gathering her money. The girl, after having made sure the fire would not go out she looks in the direction of the men and gathers their money, and waits for them to return the money, 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. Because of the money the gamblers left behind, she has enough to take care of without going back to work at the ladies' house.
  3. Red Oni Who Cried,[36] a story of two oni, one red the other blue. The red one wants to befriend humankind, but they are afraid of them, 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 where the red oni would have 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 as to not cause any misunderstanding with the humans and 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 onis thoughtfulness and wonderful friendship.



In popular cultureEdit

  • The game series Touhou Project has several characters based on oni.
  • A character based on Oni appears in the Japanese Satire Anime "Tentai Senshi Sunred/Astro Fighter Sunred", who works as an oni for hire to dispel bad luck and also part of the "evil" organization Florsheim.
  • Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger (and its American counterpart, Power Rangers Wild Force), Ogre Tribe Org is the main antagonist to fight the Gaorangers and Power Animals.
  • The Pokémon Electabuzz and Glalie appear to be based on oni.
  • The Unicode Emoji character U+1F479 (👹) represents an oni, under the name "Japanese Ogre".
  • In the TV show LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, Oni appear as a primordial force of destruction, and are the main villains of the show's tenth season, March of the Oni.
  • The popular manga and anime Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba or Demon Slayer features oni as the antagonists. The oni are depicted similar to vampires, feeding on blood and being weak to sunlight. In the English release, they are referred to as demons instead of oni.
  • The MOBA Heroes of the Storm has oni-themed skins for its characters Genji and The Butcher.[37]
  • In Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Oni is a type of Handgun.
  • Oni was used as a skin for the Type 25 Gun that can be obtained in Season 3 Battle Pass Premium Tier 1 of Call of Duty: Mobile.
  • The asymmetrical 4 vs 1 multiplayer game Dead by Daylight features an oni as one of its killers. The oni is represented as a blood-thirsty demon that gets stronger the more blood it consumes.
  • In Google Doodle Champion Island Games, The Oni are described as big boastful champions of Rugby who reside on Oni Islands.
  • Apparently, onis became the forerunner of orcs in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as Dungeons and Dragons, Warcraft, and Warhammer.
  • The world of MooShu in Wizard101 contains several oni that the player must face. These include the Plague, War, Death, and Jade Oni. These oni are depicted as being elephantine in appearance.
  • In The Venture Bros. episode I Know Why The Caged Bird Kills, Dr. Orpheus attempts to free Dr. Venture of an oni who is haunting him after returning from a business trip to Japan.
  • In Urusei Yatsura the main heroine Lum is an oni from space who wears a tiger bikini.
  • In the Japanese role-playing horror game Ao Oni, the titular oni is depicted as a blue/purplish creature with a large head and human-like features. In the subsequent 2014 movie adaptation, the oni is given a radical makeover to appear more monstrous and scary, while in its 2016 anime adaptation, the oni remains faithful to its original appearance.
  • In the fantasy role-playing game Genshin Impact, the character Arataki Itto is of crimson oni heritage; signified by his red horns and markings on his body. The plot of "Rise Up, Golden Soul", the first act of his Story Quest, is centered around the conflict between the crimson and blue oni tribes. The allegorical Inazuman fairytale of Aka and Ao that illustrates the divergence of the two tribes directly references the red and blue oni tale.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b “Oni.” Handbook of Japanese Mythology, by Michael Ashkenazi, ABC-CLIO, 2003, pp. 230–233.
  2. ^ Lim, Shirley; Ling, Amy (1992). Reading the literatures of Asian America. Temole University Press. p. 242. ISBN 978-0-87722-935-3.
  3. ^ a b c d Reider (2003), p. 135.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b Buchanan, Daniel Crump (1965). Japanese Proverbs and Sayings. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 136. ISBN 978-0-8061-1082-0.
  7. ^ a b c Hackin, J.; Couchoud, Paul Louis (2005). Asiatic Mythology 1932. Kessinger Publishing. p. 443. ISBN 978-1-4179-7695-9.
  8. ^ Turne, Patricia; Coulter, Charles Russell (2000). Dictionary of ancient deities. Oxford University Press. p. 363. ISBN 978-0-19-514504-5.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ a b “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,
  11. ^ a b Reider (2003), pp. 134–135.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Reider (2016), pp. 10–11, Reider (2016), p. 137
  15. ^ Leslie Ormandy (7 Aug 2017 ). The Morals of Monster Stories: Essays on Children's Picture Book Messages. McFarland, ISBN 9781476627694 p. 94
  16. ^ Anesaki & Ferguson (1928), The Mythology of all Races, p. 280, cited by Reider (2003), p. 314
  17. ^ Roberts, Jeremy. Japanese Mythology A to Z. Chelsea House Publishers, 2010.
  18. ^ “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,
  19. ^ Hastings, James (2003). Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. Part 8. Kessinger Publishing. p. 611. ISBN 978-0-7661-3678-6.
  20. ^ Reider (2010), p. 7.
  21. ^ Foster (2015), p. 119.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ Frédéric, Louis (2002). "Kan'ei-ji". Japan Encyclopedia. President and Fellows of Harvard College. p. 468. ISBN 978-0-674-00770-3.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ 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".
  26. ^ a b Foster (2015), p. 125.
  27. ^ Sosnoski, Daniel (1966). Introduction to Japanese culture. Charles E. Tuttle Publishing. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-8048-2056-1.
  28. ^ a b Hearn, Lafcadio (1910). Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan: First and second series. Tauchnitz. p. 296.
  29. ^ Ema, Tsutomu. Ema Tsutomu zenshū. Vol. 8. p. 412.
  30. ^ Chong, Ilyoung (2002). Information Networking: Wired communications and management. Springer-Verlag. p. 41. ISBN 978-3-540-44256-1.
  31. ^ Reider (2010), pp. 155–156.
  32. ^ 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.
  33. ^ Roberts, Jeremy. Japanese Mythology A to Z. Chelsea House Publishers, 2010.
  34. ^ Chiba, Kotaro. Tales of Japan: Traditional Stories of Monsters and Magic. Chronicle Books, 2019.
  35. ^ Fujita, Hiroko, et al. Folktales from the Japanese Countryside. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.
  36. ^ “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,
  37. ^ Frank, Allegra (2016-11-04). "Playing Heroes of the Storm gets Overwatch fans a special skin". Polygon. Retrieved 2021-06-08.

External linksEdit