Let’s face it… there are a lot of baddies out there! You’re playing a JRPG and you’re going up against all manner of beasts and brutes!
Or you’re watching an anime and the main hero is fighting against the denizens of hell! Either way, you need to know what they’re called and the different kinds you might run into.
As for me, I just finished Final Fantasy XV the other day (I highly recommend it) and the monsters that came out at night were known as “Daemons” in English, but the Japanese word that is used for them is シガイ (shigai) lit. “corpse.”
So just what is the Japanese word for Demon?
Well today I’ve got quite a few of them for you! Why so many? Well, the word “demon” is a little generic and is used to describe all kinds of different beings. It could refer to an ogre, an evil spirit, or any number of monsters from the underworld. It just kind of depends…
I’ll start off with the three big groups of demons: Akuma, Oni, and Youkai. Think of these as “demon families” if you will. Many specific demons will fall into one of these three groups depending on its nature. Later on I will talk about some specific demons from Japanese folklore.
悪魔 (akuma) – Demon, Devil, or Fiend
The word 悪魔 is made up of the kanji for “bad” 悪 and the kanji for “demon” 魔. This is the word that is used to refer to demons from Western cultures and in particular to the devil Satan. But you might also see his name written in katakana as サタン.
What do one of these 悪魔 look like? Typically they are the guys with red skin, horns, a pointed tail, and sometimes the lower half is even that of a beast’s.
The word 悪魔 is used as part of some other words like 悪魔の宴 (akuma no utage) meaning either “Black Sabbath” or a “Witches Sabbath.”
It’s used in the word 悪魔払い (akuma barai) which means “exorcism.” And it is also a part of a movie’s name that you’ve probably heard before: 悪魔のいけにえ = The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
鬼 (oni) – Ogre, Troll, or Demon
If you take a look at the kanji for “ogre” 鬼 and also a close look at the kanji for “demon” 魔 you will notice that 鬼 is a radical in 魔. That ought to show you the relation between the two words.
But 鬼 relates more to the red or blue demons that can be found in Japanese folklore. These are the ones that look similar to the Western culture’s ogre. That is one of the reasons why it can be interpreted as meaning either word.
Ever watched Dragon Ball Z? I loved that anime as a kid! There was one episode when Goku was traveling along Snake Way on his way to meet King Kai, and he falls off. Down in Hell, he runs into Goz and Mez – a red and a blue Oni!
They usually wear loincloths or clothing made out of tiger-skin, and they typically wield a large iron club with a spiky ball design on them called a 金棒 (kanabou). The Japanese expression 鬼に金棒 (oni ni kanabou) originates out of this image of a kanabou wielding ogre and it means “to be undefeatable.”
By the way, if you’ve ever played Street Fighter then I’m sure you’re familiar with the character named Akuma. Judging by his name, you would think it means “demon” and you would be correct.
But in the original game his name was actually Gouki and it was spelled 豪鬼. Recognize that second kanji? It’s the one for “ogre.” His original name meant “Great Ogre” or “Great Demon.”
One last thing on 鬼: there is a Japanese game similar to Tag that kids play called 鬼ごっこ (onigokko) and the kid who it the 鬼 is “it”.
妖怪 (youkai) – Ghost, Phantom, or Demon
The 妖怪 is a pretty popular type of monster in lot of manga. Unlike the 鬼 which are big physical brutes, the 妖怪 are more supernatural types of monsters like ghosts, spirits, apparitions, and so on.
The word 妖怪 is made up of the kanji for “calamity” 妖 and the kanji for “apparition” 怪.
Are any of you familiar with the popular series Yo-Kai Watch? It’s a role playing video game where the main kid goes around and captures different types of Youkai using his special watch. He then summons them to battle against other Youkai.
Hmm, that concept sounds familiar. Where have I heard of that before… *cough* *cough* Pokémon!!! *cough* cough*
Oh, sorry about that!
Now you’ve got a pretty good understanding on three ways you can classify demons. Those terms will pop up a lot, but there are also some specific types of demons that you might find interesting.
Some of these are not so intimidating, like the Kappa, while others are terrifying… I’m looking at you Giant Skeleton!
There are tons and tons of them in total! But I thought I would keep it to just a few today so that you can enjoy them all.
How many of them have you heard of before? Read them all and then let me know in the comments!
犬夜叉 (inu yasha) – The Dog Demon
Anyone here seen the hit anime Inuyasha? Here’s a better question: anyone finish it?!
Seriously, some shows are just too long!
Anyway, the character that the show gets its name from is 犬夜叉 (inuyasha). The word 犬 means “dog” and it is combined with 夜叉 which is a type of demon. To go into a little more detail, 夜叉 are sometimes depicted as demonic warriors, which fits right in line with the character.
Other times they are shown as benevolent nature spirits… Yeah, not so much like the anime!
河童 (kappa) – The River Child
A 河童 is considered to be a youkai demon or imp that is usually associated in some way with water.
They are said to lure people into the water where they drag them down under and drown them. Parents use these kinds of stories to warn their kids about the dangers of going too far into streams and lakes.
Oh yeah, and they look ridiculous!
Seriously, what is up with that haircut?
The phrase 河童の川流れ (kappa no kawa nagare) translates as “even a kappa can drown” and it is a Japanese expression that means “even experts make mistakes.”
絡新婦 (jorou gumo) – The Spider Youkai
A 絡新婦 is a type of spider youkai that can change its appearance into that of a seductive woman. The kanji literally translates as “binding bride.”
What does she do with the men she seduces? She wraps them in her web, poisons the, and then eats them!
And if you thought that was good, it gets even better. Sometimes she will ask passing men to hold her baby for her for a moment. The men soon discover that the baby is actually thousands of her spider eggs that then burst open on him!
Thanks, but I’ll have to pass on that one!!!
餓者髑髏 (gasha dokuro) – Also Known as Odokuro
The 餓者髑髏 are spirits that take the form of giant skeletons – 15x bigger than a person! Here’s where it gets weird: They are amassed from the bones of people who have died of starvation!
The word 餓者髑髏 literally means “starving skeleton”, so in that regard I guess it makes sense.
They roam around after midnight (Ocarina of Time, anyone?) and they bite people’s heads off and drink their blood. Gross!
Apparently you are supposed to hear a loud ringing in your ear before one comes to get you. Plus they have powers of invisibility and indestructability. Just great!
How can they be stopped? Supposedly a Shinto charm can ward them off… I’ll take 10!
烏天狗 (karasu tengu) – Crow Tengu
The 烏天狗 are totally badass! They are a type of Crow-People who live deep in the forest. They are excellent at martial arts and are even said to be the ones who transmitted the arts of Budo to men.
In addition to that, they use katanas (Japanese swords) to fight their enemies and even their large beaks when they have to.
And if that wasn’t enough, it is said that they have some magical powers as well. The magic is used primarily for tricks and deception and it is said that many ninjas received their magic from these Tengu.
Had Enough Demons for One Day?
Now you know about a lot of the different demons in Japanese folklore and legends.
In Western cultures, demons are usually portrayed as evil creatures, but in Japan they aren’t always malevolent like that. Sometimes they’re just hanging around, minding their own business, doing their own thing.
But there’s no way I can believe that the spider one isn’t evil!!!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: