A-Yokai-A-Day: The Demon of Rashōmon (Ibaraki-dōji)

This story has the potential to go off on so many interesting tangents that I have to be careful how I tell it… This summer I visited the Kyoto History Museum, which puts a lot of this legend into a very tangible perspective, making it all the more interesting because of the connections with other yokai and characters I have written about/illustrated in the past.


Ibaraki-dōji, the demon of Rashōmon

The Demon of Rashōmon, Ibaraki-dōji (羅城門の鬼、茨木童子)

The story takes place at Rashōmon, the south gate of old Kyoto. The ancient capitals of Heijō-kyō (Nara) and Heian-kyō (Kyoto) were built according to Chinese geomantic/architectural ideals, somewhat akin to feng shui. There were gates at the four cardinal directions, and these plus the emperor’s palace at the intersection of the roads connecting the gates represented the five cardinal elements. They also were represented by five celestial monsters, Byakko, Suzaku, Genbu, and Seiryū (the yellow dragon or the emperor in the center representing the fifth element, earth). Rashōmon was the gate at the end of Suzaku-dōri — the southern gate — and served as the main gate in the old city walls. It was built in 789, but after the Heian period it fell into serious disrepair and became known as an unsavory place. It became overgrown and unkempt. Thieves and bandits hung out near it. Supposedly, it even served as a dumping point for unwanted babies, and a spot to dispose of murder victims. Further adding to its haunted reputation was the legend of Rashōmon no oni — the demon of Rashōmon.

Earlier this week, we talked about Shuten-dōji and his right-hand deputy, Ibaraki-dōji. According to most legends, the demon on Rashōmon is none other than the infamous Ibaraki-đoji, and its most famous tale centers around the occurrence at Rashōmon gate.

Not very much is known about Ibaraki-dôji; it isn’t even known if he is a he or if he is a she! Many stories and most of the illustrations I have seen paint Ibaraki as a kijo, or a female oni, and so I will refer to him/her as such; although there are many other stories that talk about Shuten-dōji’s right-hand man, not woman, so who knows? It also adds a possible element that not only were they partners in crime, but also lovers. (Don’t you love debating the gender and relationships of imaginary beings? I feel like a theologian…) What is known is that Ibaraki was a wholly terrible and fearsome monster, bent of wreaking as much havoc in the human world as possible.

After his celebrated victory over Shuten-dōji, Minamoto no Yorimitsu (whom we’ve seen before a few times on this blog and in Night Parade), returned triumphant to Kyoto. He was at his home with his deputies, a foursome of heroic samurai known as the Four Heavenly Kings (an allusion to Buddhist mythology): Sakata no Kintoki (from the House of Suzaku), Urabe no Suetake (from the House of Seiryū), Usui Sadamitsu (from the House of Genbu), and Watanabe no Tsuna (from the House of Byakko). Fujiwara no Yasumasa, a noble, informed them that an oni was seen haunting Rashōmon gate. Watanabe no Tsuna, having just returned from a great battle with Shuten-dōji’s clan, could not believe that there were any oni left, and single-handedly went out to investigate. He mounted his horse and went south…

When Tsuna arrived at the gate, a great howling wind broke out and his horse could travel no further. He dismounted and went on foot. Approaching the gate in the fierce gale, suddenly he felt an enormous hand reach out and grab his kabuto (samurai helmet) fast. Tsuna wasted no time, and swung his great katana around, severing the arm of an enormous demon — Ibaraki-dōji, according to most legends. Ibaraki ran away, leaving her arm behind, and Rashōmon was no longer haunted.

According to other legends, which have been turned into Noh plays and songs, Ibaraki later returned to Rashōmon looking for her arm. She disguised herself as Watanabe no Tsuna’s wetnurse, and was able to steal back her severed arm and flee. After that, her whereabouts were never known again, though for many years after, occasionally in some town or another, villagers would claim that they had seen Ibaraki-dōji coming or going…

Thus ends the story of Ibaraki-dōji, but not Rashōmon. Eventually, as Kyoto grew, the old city walls became obsolete and vanished, making way for progress. The songs and legends about the old southern gate guaranteed that, even as the old ruined gate was built over, it would never disappear entirely. Akira Kurosawa’s amazingly beautiful film Rashōmon takes place at the gate, and is a groundbreaking piece of cinema. There are no oni in it, but watch it for a great tale in psychology. Today, there are some standing stones and plaques set up to remember this important historic location, but not even the foundation of the gate remains. In fact, a schoolyard playground lies over the spot where this demonic gate once stood. The darker side of me loves the idea of little kids laughing and playing in the same exact spot where a demon once had his armed chopped off by a giant katana…

Rashōmon Iseki

All that remains of the demon gate…

Do you like Japanese ghosts and demons? Are you a fan of strange Japanese horror? Then get my book, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons from Amazon.com today!

1 thought on “A-Yokai-A-Day: The Demon of Rashōmon (Ibaraki-dōji)

  1. Pingback: Japanese tale #43 – Ghost Song – Tanuki no monogatari

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