Book Review: Japanese Demon Lore

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present, by Noriko T. Reider. I’m going to give this one 3.5 out of 5 stars. It’s a decently written academic work, but for someone who wants oni lore along the lines of “where do they live and what do they do?” instead of a literary analysis of “what does the oni mean in this story?” it’s mostly fail.

And by “mostly fail” I mean I have about a page of potentially useful notes. Out of a book that took me 3 afternoons to get through. And a fair bit of that is “stuff listed in the bibliography that might be more useful”. Siiiiigh.

If you do want a work on “how does the oni portray the Other?” in stories and other media, this book would be of use to you. It does, indeed, range from some of the earliest written tales we have that mention oni up to the present at the time the book was written. More on that later.

Bits that are interesting for someone looking for folklore: The etymology and analysis of the 4 streams of potential oni idea origins (Japanese, Chinese, Buddhist, and onmyudo). The short section on characteristics, which includes an association with prosperity I hadn’t run into before. Shuten Douji, and how the warrior class taking over in the Tokugawa era led to people not being nearly as afraid of oni (who might kill you in a thunderstorm) as samurai (who definitely did exist and were trouble at all hours). The various ways people might be transformed into oni, before and after death, and how it differed for men and women. The fact that anyone who “goes against the will of the emperor” could be defined as an oni, supernatural or not.

But the book is mainly a reworking of several already-published journal articles the author wrote on various facets of the oni phenomenon, and it shows. Mainly in the way the author tends to have just three or four examples of what she’s talking about in each chapter of analysis, and it feels… skimmed over. Which is what you have to do to fit articles in a journal publication, you have page and word limits, but in a book there should have been more stuff.

I admit to being particularly cranky about the manga and anime chapter, where of the six examples she used, two of them are from Rumiko Takihashi – Inuyasha and Urusei Yatsura – and two more are from Nagai Go. So there are only four different writers analyzed. One of the other two is Akira Kurosawa, who has been analyzed to death in just about anything related to movies, and the other is Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Is there anyone analyzing manga/anime today who hasn’t done a section on Spirited Away? Anyone?

Yeah. I really, really would have liked more variety in “how have various writers treated oni”, particularly of some less well known stuff.

On a minor cranky note, the names and terms in Appendix B are too small to read without seriously adjusting the print font on a Kindle.

So. If you want to write some kind of formal report on Japanese folklore and literary analysis, this would be a useful book. If you’re looking for the real oni of lore… well, the book does include a good translation of Shuten Douji. With some very interesting details on what warriors were permitted to do to get close enough to an oni to kill him. It’ll raise the hairs on the back of your neck if you think about it.

All told – if you’re going to get this, I advise getting it on Kindle to lower the price, and read Appendix B on your computer so you can get it readable.

Grump. Grump grump grump….


29 thoughts on “Book Review: Japanese Demon Lore

      1. Eh, people who aren’t acting in good faith (which he wasn’t, at least towards the Oni) can almost always find a way to pretend that holy words mean ‘whatever I wish to do’ rather than the plain intention of the author. Sophistry is probably only a few years younger than language.


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  1. I’m always a little uncertain about Literature as a field of academic study.

    I can acknowledge the value of writing literature, and studying literature for itself, but once you get into academic papers I start to wonder.

    If they delve deeply into what the author intended, it turns into a psychological study based on art analysis, which isn’t all that impressive as a psychological study.

    If they step back and try to place it in the broader cultural context, then it turns into a Cultural Anthropology paper, without rigorous analysis of an anthropologist.

    It feels like whenever a Lit Major decides to write a paper, they suddenly realize that while Literature has a lot of writing, other fields have all the theses.

    In your case, you were looking for a mythological/zoological reference, and it fell short.

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  2. Sometime si think that Oni in fantasy world anme and manga or as portrayed by western writers in fantasy stories, end up more interesting…

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  3. Speaking of lore, I found a “Treasury of American Folklore” (Crown Publishers, New York; B.A. Botkin, editor) at an antique store the other day.

    It was compiled in 1944 so there’s a lot less “literary analysis”, and a lot more actual tales.

    So far I’ve learned that America had its own witch-hunters (or “witch-masters” as the tale calls them), and the weapon of choice to kill witches is a silver bullet. Which one could make one’s-self by melting down a dollar coin or a silver spoon.
    Most common way of killing a witch was that one shoots the witch’s animal form, and the human turns up shot dead or badly injured, although there is a tale of a witch-master who drew the witch’s picture and name (so that the bullet would hit the right person, since the picture wasn’t very good) on a tree and shot that.

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  4. If you’re interested in American witch folklore, in an interesting form, pick up pretty much any of Manly Wade Wellman’s writing that isn’t War of the Worlds. He not only studied it right when it was still very much active in the Appalachians, he was great about writing what normal people could do about all the monsters and that, even though his main characters tended to be a bit tougher and clear headed then most people, trickery solves most of the problems. (And while he’s mostly remembered for John the Balladeer, there’s a ton more, I’ve got a lot of fondness for Judge Thurstone, carrier of the Sword of St Dunstan.)

    Admittedly, I like reading lit analysis, when it’s more tied into cultural anthro. Especially when it’s horror or folklore/urban legend stuff(What can I say, the Vanishing Hitchiker series of books was where I really got into “oh, we keep telling the same stories, cool!”). But this does sound disappointing, given that the whole point of making it a book is supposed to be deep dives.

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  5. This is a bit of a tangent, but one thing I’ve noticed in the OSR rpg movement is that there’s a whole lot of half-assing the game design. Like people want to cash in by cribbing from D&D Basic or 1e, but don’t put in the effort that you’d expect to see in a passion project or work of love.

    Similarly, I’ve heard that in the academic community, ‘publish or perish’ results in a lot of stretching out material to get as much publishing as possible, without regard for quality of work or often even accuracy, if there don’t seem to be any low-hanging fruit left to pluck

    Now, I want to do stories and game, i.e. making up some shit that others find fun/satisfying, but in academia we need higher standards than that.

    Dunno how to fix that without corrupting the people applying the standards, but in one back-burnered WIP I have a near-future nouveau riche programmer start hiring people to do !!SCIENCE!! for him. Since his criteria for granting next quarter’s budget is, “Keep your idiot boss entertained with der blinkenlights, or at least show convincing progress towards generating the next display of der blinkenlights,” they kind of end up rocketing ahead of the glacial creep of the science/academia complex.


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    1. I would note that this solution has already been tried, and is part of the cause of a lot of the modern problems with “art” and “science”. Over in Europe, after they went through the stage of “random crackpots invent new stuff”, they moved onto “being educated (and proving it by providing something new or demonstrating skill in an intellectual field) is a status symbol… but it’s all right to be the patron of someone who actually has the skill and then just deliver the results yourself for the credit”. This lead to the Emperor’s New Clothes experiment, where several of those musicians/poets/etc decided to see just how far they could sucker their patrons, that ended up resulting in the change to the common view of the definition of “art”, from “a trained skill (which included all the sciences and crafts, so long as they were actually trained)”, to what essentially comes out to “whatever totally subjective thing the con-artist can convince the right people is ‘art'”.

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      1. That’s where him being nouveau riche comes in. He comes up with a solution for the fact that you can’t get casuals to make the jump to the headgear required for VR, sells it during the next generation gaming console development cycle, and ends up with a whole bunch of stock (better than cash for tax purposes, as I understand it) and thus a multi-million yearly income.

        Once he takes some time off to think, as well as fix the issues that a programmer’s lifestyle tends to cause, he calls up a friend and starts funding R&D for various ‘why haven’t they done this yet?’s. And while he doesn’t have more than a comp-sci major’s and sci-fi reader fan’s understanding of science, it’s enough to let the Emperor figure out that naked is naked.

        The conversation I have in rough draft form has a part that goes something like:

        “Let’s start with graphene. Make a machine that does !!SCIENCE!! with graphene.”

        *sigh* “Do you even know what you’re saying, oh soon-to-be-boss?”

        “What, you mean that research only works like that in steampunk? Look, we’re obviously at the alchemy stage with the stuff, where you can catalog the effects but can’t really predict them. So it seems like you should have two or three goals: How to create the stuff faster, how to stack it in millions of layers per centimeter or whatever for viable superbatteries and whatnot, and to catalog as many reactions from doping it with different things, metamaterial possibilities, all that. Think you can design a machine to dope the stuff in all kinds of ways, and another to test what they do?”

        “Okay. Wow. You _really_ don’t know what you’re talking about.”

        “(Friend), the only way to become an expert in a subject overnight is to be a superhero genius in a comic-book movie. So was what I just said close enough to be ‘lies told to children’? Or journalists? Because if it is, you know what I’d say if I knew what the hell I was talking about. Can you do _that_? Remember, the only red tape is local laws, and I will get my lawyer to find us the best possible set.”

        “Oh, that’s probably going to mean staying here in (state), they like their tech companies . . . but yes, I can do it, if you trust me with the money we’ll need.”

        “Eh, I can read an account sheet. Make it too obvious that you’re ripping me off and I just stop funding you, keep me interested with der blinkenlights and the money spigot stays on. So go on your honeymoon, then come back ready to do SCIENCE!”

        *sigh* “Seriously, boss?”

        He’s not a silver-spooner. He’s not beholden to anyone. He gets to be ‘eccentric’ and there’s no one to tie up his organization (as it develops) in red tape. In fact he’s going to be very specifically anti-HR, having earlier in his life been forced to dance to the corporate tune. (There’s government red tape, but that’s what lawyers are for.)

        And if some ventures fail, who cares? The money for the next idea will be there as soon as the next dividends are announced.


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  6. The fact that anyone who “goes against the will of the emperor” could be defined as an oni, supernatural or not.

    *feral grin* Oooh, so the United States is not only a country of nobles (just try getting us to show “proper reverence” for a foreign royal– see also, civilian outranks all military, I don’t have to salute anymore) but we’re Oni nobles…..

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      1. Makes sense to me, when I was being a young idiot a big black cat-thing got me back to base. I wonder what other places have them?

        (Lest it seem I’m teasing an interesting story, that’s really all there was– I was driving home from Christmas leave, my flight hit San Diego at like 10pm and I had work the next morning at China Lake NAS, about 2AM I’m driving through the desert waaaaaay amped up on coffee when I see Guenhwyvar’s cousin loping along side my little Neon. I was driving about 60 at the time, so this rather concerned me, but he just hung out until I was out of what I remember as a really bad area, and eventually I realized he wasn’t hanging in the corner of my eye anymore. No dramatic “someone wrecked there,” no car jackings, no big drug bust, just hair-stand-up-on-end WTF is the cat version of the hound of the baskervilles doing next to my car oh dear I’ve got coffee poisoning I didn’t know it did hallucinations saw a giant black cat that goes 60 like it’s easy; I got back to base, showered, put on my uniform and went to work.)

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      2. Either your guardian angel is really fannish, or one of the Native American spirits took pity on someone lost and alone. Or possibly your military unit has a personification/guardian angel. Or, you know, longaevi.

        But it’s also possible that you did a micro-sleep with micro-dreams. Not recommended while driving, but it can happen with Our Friend Caffeine.

        Or both. Nothing like being in a weird state of mind to bring on visions of a certain kind. Hunger, lack of sleep, stimulants, isolation… yup, that’ll do it.

        Whatever happened, the important thing is that you got there safe. Probably not much profit in pondering the rest, unless it came up again.

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      3. I figure whichever way Himself did it, He got me home safely when I did something stupid– and in such a way that I didn’t do it again. 😉

        With a decade and a half of space, it’s even pretty cool.
        Contrast with the family tradition of “Hey, I just Had A Feeling, so-” where we’ll get the creeps about the idea of going in a direction and find a reason not to, or have a dream about someone so we call them up, which is just kind of embarrassing … but not enough to ignore it.

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      4. Or a stray cheetah.

        That one, I can definitely say a no on– wrong body type (mastiff-looking cat, not grayhound looking cat) and the running was wrong, was the “feet are moving in pairs” type lope, but at a heart-beat pace not a almost-too-fast-to-see pace.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I saw that bit and immediately thought that I may need to try to find the journal articles for WIP.

      Current mental state makes summarizing why difficult, but it comes down to the themes and properties. I’m assuming that there was a magical side to WWII that is publicly known, and that Japanese side of it was basically Tokyo Ravens, except that the Japanese loss had much more to it than a simple own goal. Tokyo Ravens is an onmyou inspired fantasy, so Oni are of a little significance.

      So I’m examining some of the bits glued together in WIP, and am part inspired, and part concerned that that I’ve found some irreconcilable contradictions.

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      1. From the point of view of traditional Japanese beliefs vs. Imperial Shinto, there’s a lot that was wrong with Imperial Shinto. Heck, a lot of normal Meiji and before Shinto was all about oppressing variant traditional Japanese sects and beliefs. The Buddhists had tons of trouble, much less the traditional shamanistic mediums and so forth.

        So basically, a Japanese person might well believe that the gods hated Imperial Shinto. (And I remember a fantasy novel that theorized that the gods were okay with the Emperor denying godhood in order to save his life. Cannot remember who wrote it or what it was called.)

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      2. Anyhoo, there was also all that assassination of moderates and all that Thought Police and war crime and war crime lab stuff. And everybody knows that a great man or woman who is killed unjustly will come back as an angry god unless appeased, and a living oppressed person can turn into a demon or be possessed by one. And Imperial Shinto was not about appeasing the spirits of opponents who got unjustly killed, much less being nice to the desperate.

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