Onikuma – Demon Bear

Onikuma Mizuki Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

What walks on its hind legs like a human, is covered in fur, and hauls off horses in the middle of the night to eat? If you answered Onikuma, the Demon Bear, then you are definitely up on your Japanese yokai.

What Does Onikuma mean?

The name onikuma is broken down into two kanji 鬼(oni; demon, ogre) + 熊(kuma; bear). It’s an unusual name for a yokai of this type—the vast majority of magical animal yokai use some variation of bake-, like the bakekujira, or bakeneko. I have no idea why this isn’t called a bakeguma, but it just goes to show that folklore doesn’t follow any rules. A monster bear comes tromping through your town, you get to name it whatever you please.

In this case the word “oni” doesn’t mean that this is a half-oni bear. It’s just used as a descriptive term, meaning this is one big, tough bear.

The Legend of the Onikuma

Shunsen Oniguma Ehon Monogatari

Onikuma come from Kiso province (modern day Nagano prefecture). They are a fairly obscure yokai, and one of the few known depictions of them is from the Ehon Hyakumonogatari (1841). Like almost all magical animal yokai, the onikuma is a bear that has lived an exceptionally long life and has transformed into a yokai.

Onikuma have no special powers other than walking on their hind legs like humans, and being exceptionally strong. Legends say an onikuma can move rocks that 10 men together can’t push. There are still some rocks in odd places around Nagano prefecture that are rumored to have been put there by onikuma, since they are far too large for a group of men to manage.

Their favorite food is horse. They are rarely seen, but sometimes sneak into villages at night to carry off horses by their forelegs, which they then devour in their caves.

Hunting the Onikuma

A legend says that a group of villagers once hunted and killed an onikuma. They were sick of their horses being carried off, and tracked the onikuma back to its cave lair. In preparation, they carved long spears from massive trees, and placed fresh meat as bait in front of the onikuma’s cave. When it came out for its supper, the villagers attacked with their long spears, killing it. They took the carcass back to their village where they stretched and tanned the hide. It was said to be big enough to cover the floor of an entire large room.

Henge or Kaiju?

In Hokkaido, instead of transformed animals the term “onikuma” is used for giant bears who have killed and eaten humans. In his book Mujyara, Mizuki Shigeru makes the case that perhaps the onikuma is not a henge-type transforming animal like bakeneko, but just a monstrous bear and should be considered a kaiju (monster) –type yokai.

Translator’s Note:

Onikuma comes by request for reader Michael Goldstein who runs the blog Yokai Composed. It’s one of those yokai where there really isn’t too much to tell—it’s a giant, horse-eating bear. There are quite a few yokai like that, where there is only one story and not much other folklore. Still, demon bears are always cool.

Further Reading:

For more magical animal tales, check out:

Bakeneko – The Changing Cat

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults

Iriomote Oyamaneko – The Iriomote Great Mountain Cat

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nzumel
    May 29, 2013 @ 08:01:27

    I just started reading Noriko Reider’s Japanese Demon Lore, which is a history of the oni folklore. She claims that the term oni historically carried connotations of “outsider” or “foreigner”. So, she says, one reason many kinds of oni are described as large and hairy is because they are folklore-ized descriptions of big hairy white foreigners (I’m paraphrasing her crudely here).

    She also says that this applies mostly to the coast, where foreigners are more likely to show up, and Nagano’s not on the coast, but it’s one possible explanation for why these bears are oni- and not bake-. Foreign horse thieves, maybe?

    Reply

  2. Zack Davisson
    May 29, 2013 @ 08:30:07

    I love that book! And that idea of oni originally referring to foreigner’s was very interesting!

    I think the onikuma was originally just an abnormally large bear that got a legend attached to it. There is so little information about the onikuma, it seems like it was a one-time thing.

    Reply

  3. Blue Satan
    May 29, 2013 @ 10:00:44

    Ah, great, I wanted to know more info about this yokai. Like you said, there isn’t much to tell but it´s a cool yokai indeed. The Onikuma isn’t a well-known yokai and this is probably the post with the most info about this yokai in another language besides Japanese.

    PD: Have you considered translating the famous Mujyara? I´m very sure that´s an awesome book that many people would like to have, besides me.

    Reply

  4. Zack Davisson
    May 29, 2013 @ 11:15:14

    I would LOVE to translate the entire Mujyara. But that would require a publisher obtaining the rights from MizukiPro, and hiring me to do the translation. If both those things should happen, I will do a little dance of joy.

    Reply

  5. Mouryo
    Nov 28, 2013 @ 16:18:59

    Speaking of animals from the Ehon hyakku monogatari what`s up ewith the kyuso? A giant mouse/rat which seems to kill a brood of kitten

    Reply

  6. enemymindcontrol
    Aug 09, 2015 @ 09:37:57

    Reblogged this on enemymindcontrol.

    Reply

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