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
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.
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.
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