Oni (鬼)

Left: Ogre


Setsubun literally means, “division of seasons”. In Japan, it usually occurs on February 3, the day before the first day of spring. It has been recognized as the day of beginning of the year as well.

Setsubun is a traditional ceremony to ward off evil. On the evening of this day, people yell, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (Out with the ogre (devil/demons) ! In with the happiness (good luck) )! ” while scattering patched soy beans, inside and outside their homes.

To pray for good health for that year, it is customary for us to eat the same number of soy beans as our age.

鬼 絵手紙

Illustration: Amanogawa’s Mom



What is Oni (ogre)?

Actually this oni is a target of symbol of evil that needs to be warded off during the Setsubun, but what are they in the first place?

Oni are imaginary symbols of evil. They were delineated in books since 8th century, and described as current form during the 9th century. Generally, they are depicted as humans with horns and fangs, and naked, but with tiger skin around their haunches. It is said that this originated from the bull’s horns and tiger’s fangs.

Nowadays, we call ruthless people, “a person like Oni”. Oni are familiar to Japanese people and treated as different from ghost.


Oni often appear in Japanese old tales, but where are they? It is said that they are in a remote area from villages and horrific places. A brave man sets off on his journey to conquer Oni. In olden times, people thought their territory as inside (uchi) and the unknown area as outside (soto).

I think it was important to teach children saying “don’t go outside from there” and threatening like, “there are Oni and they eat you,” in order to protect them from danger. They would recognize that mysterious evil or dangerous creature are present where Oni appears. That’s why people yell, “Get out, Oni!”.

Left: Ogre

Left: Ogre

Well, there are various views about Oni. According to one theory, Oni are foreigners, especially Caucasian.

Akaoni (red ogre) is well-known among Oni. When the Japanese people of those days saw red-faced Caucasian, they were scared of them, as though “they were giant with red skin” or “they were hairy and had superhuman strength”. Since Japanese are of the yellow race with straight black hair, we can imagine that they were astonished seeing well-built Caucasian.

In short, Oni were beyond the imagination of people in the olden times and is also a simple symbol of evil.