Japan has a long tradition of scary tales, and many of them feature oni, which can be translated as devils, demons, or ogres.
Like demons in other cultures, Japanese oni have horns and prominent incisors. They also have wild curly hair and sharp claws, and often have red or blue skin.
While oni are associated with evil, they are not always frightening. Sometimes they are treated quite humorously, as the red oni on the black pebble hashioki here illustrates. This fellow wears a tiger loincloth, and carries a kanabō, or spiked iron club, which are both standard issue for oni demons. The expression oni ni kanabō, written in hiragana and kanji in the gold box on the left side of the rest, means “oni with an iron club,” and suggests a power so strong that it is unbeatable.
Oni are especially associated with a holiday in early February called Setsubun, which is the traditional beginning of spring. Families celebrate Setsubun with a ritual known as mamemaki where soybeans — smaller versions of these hashioki beans — are used to dispel evil spirits. Somebody dons a oni mask, and then the other members of the family hurl soybeans at them while chanting Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi, or “Out with the demons! In with good luck!”(1)
(1) Kodansha, Ltd. “Setsubun” in Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Vol II. Tokyo: Kodansha, Ltd., 1993, p. 1351.
February 6, 2017