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The other day at the local convenience store, I spotted packets of 鬼打ち豆 (oni-uchi mame, beans to strike the demons). This brought back warm memories of Saeko-san, my first homestay “mother” in Japan, who faithfully maintained the traditional custom of exorcising demons every year on a day known as 節分 (Setsubun).

“鬼は外!” (Oni wa soto!, Demons out!) she would chant while flinging the beans, “福は内!” (Fuku wa uchi!, Good fortune in!).

節分, observed this year on Feb. 2, once coincided with the last day of the year on the lunar calendar, preceding 立春 (risshun, the beginning of spring). It’s apparently the opportune time to rid one’s household of unwanted supernatural pests.

These legume-based exorcisms notwithstanding, demons have very much been in the news lately. Last October, an animated film titled “劇場版「鬼滅の刃」無限列車編” (“Gekijō-ban ‘Kimetsu no Yaiba’ Mugen Ressha-hen,” “Demon Slayer — Kimetsu no Yaiba — The Movie: Mugen Train”) took Japan by storm, becoming the top-grossing film in Japanese history.

The kanji for demon — 鬼, read as oni or ki — is said to depict a person who has morphed into something grotesque or supernatural. It’s translated variously in English as demon, ogre, the spirit of a deceased, an ogre-like person and the person who is “it” in a game of tag or hide-and-seek.

When used as a classifier in other characters it is simply called oni or 鬼繞 (kinyō, the demon radical). For example, the radical appears in 醜い (minikui, ugly) accompanied by 酉 (tori, bird), the kanji used to represent the rooster in the zodiac — and I’m sure a “demonic bird” would be quite ugly if you were to see one.

鬼 appears embedded in other characters such as 魔 (ma, devil), which is used in compound words such as 魔女 (majo, a witch) and 悪魔 (akuma, devil/fiend). You can see it in 塊 (kai/katamari, a clump or cluster), which is used in 金塊 (kinkai, gold ingots).

Something elusive or mysterious that pops up unexpectedly can be described using the four-kanji term 神出鬼没(shinshutsu kibotsu, literally god appears, demon vanishes).

Used figuratively, 鬼 can precede other words to describe something to be feared. Take 鬼軍曹 (onigunsō, demon-sergeant), used to describe a sadistic non-commissioned officer who mistreats their troops, or a coach or manager who drives subordinates to exhaustion through strenuous practice sessions or overwork.

Somewhat less serious is 餓鬼 (gaki, often abbreviated in katakana as ガキ), which means “hungry demon,” and humorously refers to a rambunctious or naughty child.

In Asian geomancy, the 鬼門 (kimon, the demon’s gate) facing the northeast direction, is considered unlucky and to be avoided.

Either as oni or ki, 鬼 appears in quite a few Japanese surnames. It seems to carry no particular social stigma, except, perhaps, for some occasional ribbing.

The surname 鬼頭 (Kitō or read alternatively as Onigashira), meaning “demon head,” is fairly common, with some 20,100 people in Japan estimated to be so named. Other demonic surnames include 鬼塚 (Onizuka/Onitsuka/Kizuka, demon mound), 鬼沢 (Onizawa/Onisawa/Kizawa/Kisawa, demon marsh), 九鬼 (Kuki/Kuoni/Kyūki, nine demons), 鬼木 (Oniki/Onigi/Oniku/Kigi/Kiki/Ogi, demon tree), 鬼丸 (Onimaru/Kimaru, demon circle) and 鬼嶋 (Kijima, demon island).

At a party some years ago, a gentleman handed me a business card with the somewhat peculiar name 三鬼一二, which literally translates as “Three Demons One Two.” The “three demons” surname, read “Miki,” is relatively uncommon, but not necessarily rare. As for the one-two, he invited me to read it “Kazuji”, with the “kazu” (一) denoting he was the family’s oldest son.

Demons also figure in quite a few popular sayings and expressions. The first I learned, from a co-worker, was 鬼の居ぬ間に洗濯 (oni no inu ma ni sentaku, doing one’s laundry when demons are absent). In other words, you can goof off when the person in charge is absent — the Japanese version of “when the cat’s away the mice will play.”

One of my favorite sayings goes, 鬼の女房に、鬼神がなる (oni no nyōbō ni, kijin ga naru), which literally translates as “a fierce god becomes the wife of a demon.” The nuance is basically that your partner reflects who you are, or “birds of a feather flock together.”


Here are a few more popular aphorisms referring to demons, devils and other things that go bump in the night:

鬼に金棒 (Oni ni kanabō, To give a demon a gold bar): Used to describe empowering someone or something, making them even stronger, or giving them a decisive advantage. 例 (rei, example): 彼が味方なら鬼に金棒だ (Kare ga mikata nara oni ni kanabō da, If he were on our side, we would be even stronger.)

鬼の目にも涙 (Oni no me ni mo namida, Demons also shed tears): A saying with the nuance that even the coldest or hardest heart will sometimes be moved to pity. 例: いつも厳しいあの先生が泣くとは、まさに鬼の目にも涙だ (Itsumo kibishii ano sensei ga naku to wa, masani oni no me ni mo namida da, That teacher who’s always so strict cries, certainly even the hardest of hearts can be moved to tears.)

鬼の霍乱 (Oni no kakuran, The devil gets heatstroke): Said when a person with a strong constitution gets ill. 例: 皆勤賞をとっていた彼が風邪をひくなんて、鬼の霍乱だ (Kaikinshō o totte-ita kare ga kaze o hiku nante, oni no kakuran da, That guy who won a prize for perfect attendance caught a cold, it’s as if the devil himself came down with heatstroke.)

鬼の首を取ったよう (Oni no kubi o totta yō, Showing off an ogre’s decapitated head): Strutting around and showing off as if you’ve accomplished some great feat. 例: メディアは大臣の失言を鬼の首を取ったように繰り返し報道した (Media wa daijin no shitsugen o oni no kubi o totta yō ni kurikaeshi hōdō shita, The media reported the government minister’s gaffe over and over as if they’d caught him red-handed.)

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