Japanese Demon Lore: Oni

5.0 out of 5 stars The Importance of Being Oni

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present

One of the oni’s supernatural powers is shape-changing, and that is entirely  appropriate for a creature that has transformed so completely across the  centuries. From a powerful, invisible entity worshiped as a god, to one of many  of Japan’s assortment of monsters known as yokai, to the sexy and frivolous Lum  from the popular series Urusei  Yatsura, and to an emotional children’s book character in “The Red Oni who  Cried;” the oni has played many roles in Japanese society.

Noriko Reider  (Tales  of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan) takes us on a tour of the various  masks the oni has worn over the story of Shuten Doji, and an exploration of  female oni and the morphable mountain oni called yamauba, to oni in modern manga
and anime. A few stories are looked into in detail, like the aforementioned  Shuten Doji (of which Reider supplies a full translation as an appendix), and  the legend of Sakata no Kintoki, also known as Kintaro the golden boy, who was  raised by a yamauba. Reider looks at modern anime like Spirited  Away and Inuyasha  for a modern take on oni.

I have read several of these essays before,  from the “Journal of Asian Folklore Studies.” Noriko Reider is a prolific and  interesting writer on Japanese folklore, and her works were a main resource when  I did my own MA in Japanese folklore. For “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni,” Reider has  edited and reworked her essays, adding elements here and there, for an  imminently readable study on this important Japanese figure. Even though I was  familiar with some of the information, there was still much to learn about oni.

There is history here, and interpretation. There is the oni as outsider,  and speculations on the origin of the Shuten Doji legend being a shipwrecked  Spaniard and his crew. Or metal workers in the Oe mountains. There is  sexualizing of the yamauba figure from an old hag to the voluptuous woman of  Utagawa’s prints. There is the oni as metaphor and symbol, such as the use of  oni during WWII to portray the Allies, or as a sympathetic allegory of the  outcast burakumin caste in Nakagami Kenji’s “A Tale of an Oni.” Throughout all  of Japanese history the oni has played the role required of it by Japanese  society.

“Japanese Demon Lore: Oni” is a scholarly book, and Reider  assumes readers will have a functional background in Japanese folklore. She does  not spend a lot of time on definitions of words like kami, marebito and  mononoke. She assumes readers will be familiar with Japanese folklore heroes  like Minamoto no Raiko, Kintaro, and Abe no Semei. I think you could still get  something out of “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni” without this background, but there  is more to be gained if you have a foundation.

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Tales of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan: Kaidan, Akinari, Ugetsu Monogatari

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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best resources on kaidan ever published

I first encountered these articles in the academic journal of Asian Folklore Studies, when I was writing my Master’s thesis on yurei, the Japanese ghost. The two main articles, “The Emergence of Kaidan-shu” and “The Appeal of Kaidan” formed the backbone of my research, and I am thrilled to see them collected here in book form.

Noriko T. Reider probably knows more about kaidan, Japanese strange stories, than any other person around. When I was doing research for my MA, I read through literally hundreds of books, both in English and Japanese, and it was Reider’s articles that I kept coming back too. She has a way of writing that is concise and readable, academic without drowning in its own language like books like Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan which is so dense as to be almost unreadable.

“Tales of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan, Kaidan, Akinari, Ugetsu Monogatari” has four chapters, each with a different focus. “The Emergence of Kaidan-shu” is a history lesson on from its beginnings in early folktales to the kaidan-boom of the Edo period. Next, “Belief in the Supernatural in the Edo Period” discusses the attitudes towards the supernatural in Edo period Japan and how they created the atmosphere in which the kaidan genre could arise. “The Appeal of Kaidan” discusses people’s fascination with gory and grotesque stories, and what is it that drives people to tales of the unknown. The last chapter, “Akinari and Kaidan Ugetsu Monogatari” discusses in depth Ueda Akinari, author of Tales of Moonlight and Rain, possibly the best kaidan book ever written.

While the pure history of the first few chapters is interesting, Reider’s focus on the concept of obsession and the role it plays in Akinari’s celebrated book brings her collection to a higher level. She clearly has a passion for Akinari’s work, and it shows as she dissects the nine tales in Akinari’s book, looking into the driving nature of each character to focus on and pursue what obsesses them.

There is a dearth of good material writing on the fascinating world of Japanese kaidan, and it is a real shame. But of what is available, Reider’s work is definitely the cream of the crop, and if I was a professor grading a paper that discussed Japanese supernatural in any way, and Reider’s name and “Tales of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan, Kaidan, Akinari, Ugetsu Monogatari” was not in the bibliography, you would need a pretty good excuse to get a passing grade.

Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple

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5.0 out of 5 stars What is religion, and what is faith?

Most Westerners have a deep and profound misunderstanding of Zen. There is an image of calm monks “being one” with things, in a relaxed state of serenity, with some sort of special insight lacking in the hustle and flow of the busy modern day world. This is the picture sold to us by dealers in Orientalism, who emphasize the “otherness” of Eastern cultures and want you to participate in their weekend seminar of “detoxification and relaxation.”

The truth of Zen, the harsh discipline, the manual labor, the emphasis on the repetition of overly-complicated ceremonies for simple activities like going to the bathroom, is not such an easy sell. This aspect of the religion is mostly ignored by Westerners, who do not want to expend the physical effort to achieve the longed-for mental state. Nonomura Kaoru’s “Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple” is, thus, a real eye-opener.

Unlike other books in the same vein, such as A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine, “Eat Sleep Sit” is not really here to explain Zen Buddhism. It is much more of a personal memoir, of a record of what happened over the Nonomura’s year as a monk-in-training at Eiheiji, one of Japan’s two major training centers of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism. Much of the book is little more than an explanation of the day-to-day mundane activities Nonomura was forced to perform. And that is what makes it excellent.

The Soto sect has a reputation as being the “kinder, gentler” form of Zen Buddhism, in contrast with the Rinzai sect which was also known as “Samurai Zen,” as the harshness of its training appealed to the warrior caste. However, to those unfamiliar with true Zen Buddhism will probably find Eijeiji’s routine strict enough. The beatings by senior monks, the mindless and slavish adherence to ancient rituals, the breaking of the slightest of which brings swift and harsh punishment, are all designed to break down the ego and sense of self of initiates, reducing them to the empty vessel required to enter the empty state of Zen.

Nonomura takes the reader through the same process. Instead of attempting to “explain Zen,” which cannot be explained at any rate, he shows you the path. He takes you through the tasks and ceremonies, the manual labor and punishments, because that is how one gains insight. Even though “Eat Sleep Sit” is not specifically about Zen Buddhism, I learned more about the mind-set of monks than I have learned from any number of books that more directly explain the religion.

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