Sympathy for the Devils

The mask of a devil (oni) serves to keep away evil spirits at a hot-spring spa. DAVID CAPEL

After the glitter and bright goods of Christmas have departed from store shelves and after too the largely more subdued traditional decorations for the New Year no longer figure in Japan’s shops and stalls, other seasonal merchandise appears to coax consumers’ hand into their pockets. Prominently displayed in supermarkets and convenience stores are bags of roasted beans as well as hard-to-miss masks—typically bright red of face and bearing horns, prominent fangs and a malevolent sort of glare—of devils.

The reason for the growing plethora of demons and beans throughout January and into early February is the ceremony known as Setsubun, commonly held on February 3 or 4. The purpose of this rite is to drive demons (oni) out of one’s home, which is achieved by scattering beans (usually roasted soybeans in the process known as mamemaki) inside or outside the residence. The beans serve a symbolic purifying role, and they are scattered to the chant of Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (“Out with demons; in with good luck”). The beans may also be flung towards a member of the household who dons a demon mask and serves as a kind of devil’s advocate. In the face of all that chanting and all those beans, any self-respecting oni has no choice but simply to vacate the premises with all haste.

[Ed. For another Setsubun-related tradition, see On a Roll.] 

People in Japan have been chucking beans at devils for quite some time. The practice of mamemaki is believed to date from the Muromachi period (1333–1568) and derives from an ancient Chinese ceremony for driving out the demonic ones. In these rites, the oni clearly serve as representatives of evil spirits. 

Oni are usually depicted as horned, ferocious beings with a skin color that generally recalls the shade of a boiled lobster. They frequently appear in folk tales, proverbs and also in common daily parlance in Japanese. The demons have a fair appetite for schadenfreude, possess prodigious strength, probably learn at a tender age that they won’t be able to get by in life on the strength of good looks and their sartorial tastes are pretty much confined to simple loincloths—preferably of tiger skin. To get their point across, oni are fond of making effective use of their hefty iron clubs. And like the ogres in the first film installment of The Hobbit, with whom oni would doubtlessly feel some kinship, they are not usually regarded as the intellectual titans of the folklore world. 

Japan’s devils may be thought of as a manifestation of the rampant forces of wild nature—as evident in their definite preference for running amok given half a chance. When Buddhism came to Japan, it decided to recruit oni as its operatives in hell to torture those unfortunates condemned to that realm because of their failings in this world. Given their general disposition, it is somehow hard to imagine the devils having too many problems in terms of job satisfaction.

However, despite their generally negative image, oni cannot revel in the role of always being the bad guy. These devils do in fact also serve a benevolent function as witnessed in a number of festivals in which men dressed as oni march at the head of a procession, sweeping away evil. The roof tiles known as onigawara, bearing an image of a grimacing demon, sometimes appear on buildings, and their purpose is to ward away bad spirits.

In folklore, the best-known tale featuring oni has to be that of Momotaro (Peach Boy). True to his name, Momotaro was discovered inside a peach by a childless elderly couple, who adopt him, and it soon turns out that he has the stuff of heroes coursing through his veins. With the aid of a dog, pheasant and monkey as companions, Momotaro sets off for Ogre Island, from which oni had been conducting various despicable acts over a number of years. Momotaro and his associates dispatch the demons, release their prisoners—including attractive young women, for which the oni clearly had an appreciative eye—and then plunder the demons’ plunder. Momotaro returns home to the elderly couple, rich, content and successful, and the tale concludes with good having happily triumphed over evil.

David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.

[This article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of the Japan Journal.]

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