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Shoki and Oni are prominent folklore characters who grew out of the religious traditions of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan and Taoism in China.  Shoki, otherwise known as the Demon Queller, is regarded as the god of the afterlife and of exorcism.  Oni refers to a whole host of particularly nasty demons.  According to legend, the Oni fear Shoki and so he is able to easily scare them away from their hapless human victims.  Japanese families with male children used to hang images of Shoki outside their houses to ward off evil spirits during Tango no Sekku (Boys' Day Festival), which is held annually in May.  These days, the festival is for boys and girls and no doubt, Shoki is more than happy to be protector to both! 

Who is Shoki and where did all those demons come from?  The story of Shoki begins in the Chinese province of Shensi, where he was known as Chung Kuei.  It is said that he lived during the T'ang dynasty and that his sole aim in life was to become a physician to the royal court.  Shoki completed his training and successfully passed the examinations.  The legend says that he placed first of all the people who aspired to work for the emperor.  However, there was one problem - Shoki was very ugly.  Even though he was the best person for the job, the emperor rejected him because of how he looked. 

Shoki was so distraught at seeing his dream shattered by something he had no control over, that upon hearing the news, he took his own life.  He killed himself in front of the emperor on the very steps of the imperial palace.  The emperor was overcome with grief and remorse for what he had said, feeling that his insensitivity had been responsible for the death of this honest and hard-working man.  The emperor ordered that Shoki be buried with the highest honors usually reserved for royalty.  Shoki's spirit, grateful to the emperor - vowed to protect him against demons. 

From China, the story of Shoki traveled to Japan during the Edo period (1600 - 1868).  In the Japanese myths, Shoki quells demons rather than killing them.  The vanquished demons become allies and sometimes even active helpers in Shoki's quest for good against evil.  The Oni of Japanese myths are demons that have human shape.  They also have three eyes, horns, and sharp nails.  Oni as described through history represent just about all of the emotions and traits that we associate with evil and wrongdoing.  Oni were said to linger around wicked people and to claim their souls when they died, transporting them by chariot to Emma-Hoo, the god of hell.  

Given what they looked liked, Oni would be hard to miss except for the fact that they rarely revealed themselves to humans.  They preferred to wreak their brand of havoc by causing earthquakes and other natural disasters - such as plagues.  They were also famous for helping invading enemies get a foothold on native soil.  One interesting note from the Buddhist tradition is that there are mythic stories of monks - good people in real life that became Oni after death in order to protect the temples they had once inhabited.  Therefore, not all Oni started out as wicked people. 

The Japanese do have a ceremony called Oni-Yarabi, which was designed to cleanse an infected area of the Oni demons.  However, Shoki was the main person that they called on to ward off the demons.  Japanese folklore has always been rich with belief in demons and spirits.  These stories sprang from mythology and superstitions carried over from various religious traditions.  These stories explain events in nature that might have been otherwise difficult to understand.  Among these stories, Shoki and Oni remain some of the most colorful and definitely a national favorite throughout time.


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