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Here Be Monsters: An Omnibus of Demonic ‘Oni’ Usage in Japanese

The terrifying demons of Japanese lore are a surprisingly rich source of proverbs. GaijinPot investigates how to “say it with ogres."

By 4 min read

Thanks to its thousands of years of history, Japan is rich in folklore and horrific stories. From the お屋敷やしき (haunted houses) to the 鬼婆おにばば (cackling hags) there are no shortage of things to scare kids with here (especially with a torch under the chin and the increasing popularity of Halloween in Japan).

One of the most common of these delightful horrors is the おに (a kind of Japanese demonic ogre) found everywhere from sacred temples to video games that — depending on the writer — can be anything from a terrifying beast to a comical presence. Appropriately, for such a multifaceted creature, there are a large number of proverbs associated with it.

Often 鬼 is added to words to mean that someone gives themselves over with devilish energy. A common one is かれは仕しごとの鬼だ which is used to talk about how someone dedicates themselves to their job with demonic energy, working furiously day and night.

Accordingly, in order to access this ultimate source of power, you would need to take the 鬼 strength deep into your heart. Sure, this sounds admittedly like a pretty unlikely series of events, but there is a proverb that describes exactly this: かれこころを鬼にして (“He turned his heart into a demon)”.

Much as Darth Vader is inextricably linked to his lightsaber; the 鬼 is also commonly linked to its weapon: a club known as a 金棒かなぼう. Of course, much like a Sith, giving the oni its favored weapon makes it incomparably strong. Therefore 鬼に金棒 (demon to a demon) means to make something that was originally strong even stronger still. It’s akin to the similarly awesome — albeit not oni-related — proverb とらつばさ (to gift a tiger with wings).

One of the interesting aspects of the proverb 鬼に金棒 is the way that it highlights the cultural differences between Western countries and Japan. In the West, where we would say that someone is “our rock,” the Japanese would say that person is their 鬼に金棒だよ.

Often ‘oni’ is added to words to mean that someone gives themselves over with devilish energy.

A similar interesting cultural difference can be found in the expression “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” While this is a cool image, this saying is infinitely more metal in Japan as it is often written as 鬼の洗濯せんたく (“The time for washing is when the ogre is away”). Yeah, I have to agree. I, too, would tend to do my washing whenever the terrifying monster isn’t around (though that pile of dirty clothes can look menacing enough)!

One of the reasons for the 鬼 being away may be that he is chilling out near the local temple. In Japanese, this is called: てらとなりに鬼がむ (“A demon lives next to a temple”). In its usage, it’s a way to explain how both good and bad can exist in one body, similar to the angel and devil on each shoulder in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons.

This understanding of the dualism of mankind is very common in the Japanese language. When talking about both the good and the bad that people do you may hear the proverb わた世間せけんに鬼はなし(“There are no demons in the world”). This means that not all people lack compassionate, but that there are nice people mixed in with the wicked and vice versa.

If all of this sounds a little bit negative, it’s not unthinkable that all of this evil may be a bit overpowering for even an 鬼. In this case, 鬼のにもなみだ(“Even the demon’s eyes tear”) or in other words: from the eyes of the terrifying beast a gentle tear can be seen, even though the beast itself is still dangerous. This is another fascinating difference between Japanese and English as in English we might call these “crocodile tears’ instead of the far more awesome ogre tears!

It is even said of oni that: 来年らいねんことえば鬼がわらう (“Talking about next year makes demons laugh.”) … well kinda. The joke here is that 鬼, much like Chuck Norris in that famous staring meme, never smiles (except, presumably, after defeating multiple opponents in a fight to the death). Therefore, this proverb inevitably means that making predictions about the future is foolish.

However, that is likely as close as we are going to get to a positive 鬼 proverb. So we’ll use this as an opportunity to remind learners that while Halloween can be a dark and scary time, there is happiness waiting just beyond — even if it may be the visage of a terrifying creature attempting to smile.

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