Vegder's Blog

August 20, 2009

Shuten-dōji 酒呑童子 The baddest of the bad

Cannibalism 人食い or Who is for lunch?: The thought of cannibals gives most normal human beings the creeps and I, personally, don’t care to know anyone who it doesn’t. (Think Hannibal – rhymes with cannibal – Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer.) The thought of it works itself insidiously into the deepest recesses of the human psyche and shows up in contemporary society in any number of ways. In fact it is is a real money-maker. It exists in zombie* movies and in French art films like Delicatessen, musicals like Sweeny Todd, that epic of pre-history invention Quest for Fire – which I like to call it Quest for Sex – and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Damn, it seems to be everywhere. Even Soylent Green gives us a variation on this theme: “They’re making our food out of people. Next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food. You’ve gotta tell them. You’ve gotta tell them!” On the other hand, I have to tell you, one of my favorite episodes of “The Twilight Zone” was called “To Serve Man”.

Below is my doctored version of a Kuniyosi triptych of Raikō and his men attacking the drunken, stupefied monster Shuten-dōji.



Last year a good friend of mine sent me The Road by Cormack McCarthy. It is a story about post-apocalyptic survival. While, by all measures, I consider McCarthy a brilliant writer, I have to tell you I quit reading the book at the point which cannibalism entered the scene. It wasn’t explicit. It was implied, but implied with a vengeance.

Below is my doctored version of a Masayoshi (政美 1764-1824) print showing Raikō and his men slaying the monster. After cutting off Shuten-dōji’s head it flies up into the clouds and threatens them from the upper right.


Here is another example from the collection of the Freer Sackler Galleries. It is a fan paintinig by Kyōsai. The only thing that saves Raikō from the decapitated head trying to get him is his magic helmet. (I added this on November 16, 2016.)


The word ‘cannibal’ entered the English language in 1553 via the Spanish who got it from Christopher Columbus on his return from the West Indies. It seems that while exploring the Caribbean Chris was told by a native tribe that the people who lived over there in what is now Puerto Rico were called something-or-other and that they ate human flesh. The word which Columbus heard or thought he heard was Canibales which is synonymous term for the Caribe people. Oddly enough caribe came to mean ‘bold and daring.’ I guess it is bold and daring to eat your neighbors. I wouldn’t know.

A year before the word ‘cannibal’ was published for the first time in English we got a synonymous term – anthropophagus. Ick! And don’t forget John 6:54-5 – “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” So much for repulsion and fear. I guess you have to chose your place and time for everything.

Below is different version by Yoshitsuya of the severed head of Shuten-dōji continuing its unrelenting assault on Yorimitsu and his cohorts.


Herodotus (ヘロドトス), 5th century B.C., wrote about cannibals. Michel de Montaigne (1533-92: モンテーニュ) wrote in an essay “Of Cannibals” wrote: “After that they roast him, eat him among them, and send some chops to their absent friends.” Sent some chops to friends? What? This isn’t Omaha Steaks. Montaigne also noted that two prominent Stoics, Chrysippus and Zeno “…were of the opinion that there was no hurt in making use of our dead carcasses… and in feeding upon them too…” This was considered especially important in times of sieges: Eat the ones who can’t bear arms first.

*Zombies ゾンビ, ogres 鬼 and ghosts 幽霊: Now we get into the grey areas. If you want to be a strict grammarian about it only a living human can be a cannibal. However, that leaves out a lot of similar categories. Are the ‘undead’ human? They were. Are the vengeful spirits of deceased souls in Japan human? No, but they were. So… when a creature like Shuten-dōji who was born human, according to most accounts, became an incredibly malicious ogre/ghost/monster and fed on human flesh and blood wasn’t he/it a cannibal. If not, what was he? I ask you. Of course, it isn’t cannibalism to be eaten by a bear, a gerbel or a bunch of guppies, but I think Shuten-dōji deserves an exemption on this one – dispensation.

Below is a detail from a diptych by Shuntei (春亭 1770-1820) showing a close up of the face of the drunken monster Shuten-dōji. Below that is the full diptych.



Uncooked:Un-James-Cook-ed, to be exact. Certainly there are a lot of rumors floating around the Internet which are untrue, unfounded and are incapable of being debunked. But it isn’t the Internet that is the problem. It is people. False reports existed long before keyboard. Off hand, I only know of three prominent figures who were said to have been cannibalized: Captain James Cook, Ferdinand Magellan and Michael Rockefeller. The first two had been reported murdered by ‘cannibals’ and the third had simply disappeared – never to be heard from again – in territory where the natives were known to have practiced this abomination. The Cook story is false and as for the other two, Rockefeller and Magellan, I say “Prove it.” Then, of course, there are the other tales – some true, some not, and everything in between – such as the starving Donner party and the stranded soccer players in the Andes. But really, how many of you out there have ever known anyone who was eaten? If your answer is “I do!” then don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

My best friend always said that whenever he would make dinner reservations at a popular restaurant and knew that he would not be seated until at least two hours after the time slot he had been given he would always want to tell them that his name was Donner. “Donner party of six – your table is ready. Oh, there are only five of you.”  There is more to his morbid joke, but I leave that to your imagination.

Below is my doctored version of a Yoshitoshi (芳年 1839-92) triptych on the theme of slaying Shuten-dōji. The detail of the monster’s head above that is unaltered.



The meat of the matter: The setting is Kyōto. The time, late 10th century. Strange things are happening. In 989 a large part of the capital was destroyed by a tornado. The power of the court is in decline and there are no reliable agencies like FEMA and American insurance companies to pick up the pieces. People in the region are being abducted or just plain disappear into thin air. Many of them are the daughters of the aristocracy. Night is a scary time, but it doesn’t really make any difference because experienced demons or oni have the power to turn day into night. The area around Kyōto is riddled with bandits and ogres. No one is safe. The gods are not happy.

The worst of the worst was Shuten-dōji. He lived in neither time nor space and seemed to be immune from human punishment. Said to have been born a human boy he was abandoned early on. He had a reason to be pissed. How he morphed into a monster…? I am unclear on that little detail, but he did and he set up his abode on Mt. Ōe (大江山) nearby. In some accounts it is a cave in others it is a huge palace of lapis lazuli encrusted with gems. Incidentally, the first two kanji characters of his name, 酒呑, mean ‘boozer’ or drunkard while the last two, 童子, mean boy/kid/child. What a combo – youth and intoxicants. A bad mix.

Wimps need not apply: The people of Kyōto were in desperate need of a hero – a man of courage, a man of strength, of cunning, a man of leadership and one who could transcend the mortal world of time and space like the monster did. Minamoto no Yorimitsu – aka  Raikō- (源頼光 948-1021) was just such a man. Yet even Yorimitsu could not do this alone so he sought the help of several other super-hero-types: Hōshō, Tsuni, Kintoki, Sadamitsu and Suetake. (The numbers vary according to the version.) First they would need a game plan and if necessary divine intervention. Demons were known to be shape shifters which could turn themselves into “…dust or tree leaves at the first indication of an enemy’s approach.”

In 995 Raikō and his men paired off and visited three different temples/shrines to pray for success. Raikō and Hōshō visited the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine (石清水八幡宮). Located about 12 1/2 miles south of Kyōto the Minamoto identified with this shrine in particular. Tsuni and Kintoko prayed at the Sumiyoshi shrine and Sadamitsu and Suetake at the Kumano. At this point it is important to remember that these men went to three different temples. (Below is a photo by 663Highlands and posted at It shows the shrine as it was rebuilt in the 17th century.)


After a period of worship thses brave men were ready. They decided to disguise themselves as yamabushi or mountain ascetic of the Shugendō cult. They did this for two reasons: first, they would not have been able to enter the otherworldly realm dressed as human warriors and second, only holy men would have any hope of making that unreal journey. Besides, the so-called founder of this sect was said to have controlled the powers of the forest and mountain demons. It is also interesting that by acting and dressing like yamabusi they can immediately be spotted for their anachronisms. Shugendō didn’t really get going until the century after Yorimitsu’s death although the sect did have its precedents among earlier Buddhists and Shintoists. The earliest account of this tale may be no earlier than the 14th century. After that it was became a part of the repetoire of noh, bunraku, kabuki and woodblock prints.

Each man packed his special armor in wooden carrying cases. Raikō’s sword was called the Bloodsucker. In some accounts it is described as being too short to cut through the massive neck of the ogre so it grew magically to the appropriate size needed to do the job. His sword grew! Oh,if only that were true for each of us. Hōshō’s spears were called Stonecutters. Tsuna carried the Demon Slayer. They also “…carried saké in bamboo tubes, flintstones and tinder, and covered their packs with oil paper to seal out the rain.” (Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology… by Haruo Shirane). Since they were disguised as ascetics they also carried the standard conch-shell horns and vajra staffs. Soon they encountered three men gathering wood. Raikō told them about the mission and the three strangers revealed themselves as the Buddhas of each of the temples where the warriors prayed. The Buddhas gave  Raikō a special saké called Divine Miracle Wine and said that if they could get Shuten-dōji to drink some of it he would no longer have the power of flight or be able to feel the cuts the warriors would be raining down upon him. Sounds like it might have been 200 proof or a bit like propofol. On the other hand, since it is magical wine it will have no effect on human consumption. It only works on montsters. Sweet! The Buddhas also gave Raikō a special helmet which would protect him from Shuten-dōji’s disembodied but still lethal head. (My family used to tell the story of a headless chicken ‘chasing’ my older sister around when she was a little girl. Sure glad I wasn’t born yet. Another irrelevant bit of info: I was just listening to the BBC and they said the Italians have no term for ‘hangover.’ I don’t know if this is true, but it sure is timely.)

Below is a detail of Raikō from a Kuninaga print. He is about to strike out at the giant earth spider.


Next they came upon – and the story varies here -a young woman washing blood from clothing. (In some of the stories it is an aged woman several hundred years old.) She says: “The demon loves us for a while, but then he squeezes the blood from our bodies, calls for saké, and drinks it. He slices up our flesh and calls it a side dish! Watching him eat us like that  is a sad thing indeed. Just this morning the daughter of the Horikawa middle councilor was squeezed for her blood, too. It breaks my heart to be washing out her robe now… It’s just too awful!” (Haruo Shirane) Then she tells Raikō how to find Shuten-dōji’s lair – den or palace. She says that first there will be an iron wall with an iron gate guarded by oni. Beyond that “The palace is lapis lazuli, bedecked with jewels.” And every night the monster has his captive harem gather in the iron hall and massage him. During the day he takes the form of an oversized boy with dishevelled hair. At night he is 10′ tall and drinks until he passes out.

Once the approaching humans were spotted the demons guarding the gate went into a frenzy. They wanted to rush forth and tear the intruders to shreds before devouring their bodies, but… but… but… first they thought they should notify their overlord. Even though it had been eons since victims had come to them the oni had the presence of mind to report in first. Big mistake for them. When Shuten-dōji heard about these men he ordered that they be brought to him. Surrounded by lightning and thunder the monster demanded to know how these men had found him and why. Keeping their cool Raikō and his men seemed glad to see the monster and offered him some of their saké. While Shuten-dōji wasn’t exactly born yesterday, if you know what I mean, he was a bit softened by his visitors style. And yet he still didn’t trust them so he decided to test their spirits. Dōji – some people called him that – Dōji ordered his demons to press some fresh human blood and had it brought to him so he could offer it as ‘saké’ to his guests. They drank it down and seemed unfazed. So, Dōji ordered some of his special side dishes for them. The oni “…brought an upper arm and a leg – freshly cut…” which the monster told his assistants to prepare for these yamabushi. But Raikō said basically “Why bother?” and pulled out a knife and cut a raw slice off and ate it down.  His men did the same and they all even took seconds. Mmmmm? Yum! Asked how holy men could eat this flesh Raikō responded that it didn’t reallymatter because all life exists within a dream. Nothing is real. That seemed to satisfy the monster.

To the left is a Kuniyoshi print showing Kannon guiding Yorimitsu to Shuten-dōji. This print is a promised gift from Professor Arthur Miller to the British Museum and is shown courtesy of that institution. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

But generally, in other accounts the victims were not eaten raw. R. Keller Kimbrough gives a translation from the Shuten-Dōji emaki in the Iwase Bunko collection:

Looking around the demon’s vast dwelling in the rocks, the men found thousands upon
thousands of human skeletons, some old and some new. There were corpses pickled in
vinegar, and others drying in the sun. There were also the dismembered heads, arms,
and legs of beautiful young ladies. Taking in the sight, the men pitied Shuten Dōji’s captives
even more than they had before.

The British Museum is rich in remarkable prints by Kuniyoshi. Below are two examples of triptychs showing how the unsuspecting Shuten-dōji was lured into believing he was still in control.

This triptych is shown courtesy of the British Museum. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Suspicious, but lulled, Shuten-dōji agreed to drink the saké these mountain priests had brought as a gift. Naturally Raikō drank some first to show the demons that it wasn’t poisoned. From here accounts give different versions, but all end the same way. In some the monster and his demons were drugged into a stupor and were somewhat easier to slay. In others the drunken oni danced wildly for their guests. But in the end the job was done and Yorimitsu and his men marched back to the capital with the head of Shuten-dōji placed on a cart followed by the rescued abductees.

The 1853 Kuniyoshi triptych to the left is from the collection of the British Museum. It is a promised gift of Professor Arthur Miller. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Below is a print by Yoshitoshi showing Shuten-dōji being entertained by a tug-of-war between a captive and an oni. Notice the side dishes sitting nearby.


This part was added on June 7, 2011: Professor Noriko Reider noted that Shuten-dōji’s minion, the oni, could have eaten their victims in one gulp. In fact, there is a phrase which describes it perfectly – oni hitokuchi –  ‘one gulp oni‘. Yet, in the Shuten-dōji stories and images the oni make a real feast of human body parts. In the 10th century Tales of Ise there is the story of  a man abducts a beautiful woman whom he normally could never dream of being with. Helen Craig McCullough tells it this way: “The journey ahead was long, the hour had grown late, and a torrential rain was pouring down, punctuated by frightful peals of thunder. The man put the lady inside a ruined storehouse and stationed himself in the doorway with his bow and quiver on his back, never dreaming that the place was haunted by demons. But while he was standing there longing for daybreak, a demon ate the lady up in one gulp. A thunderclap muffled her scream of terror.”

In another tale from ca. 823, but set in the time of the Emperor Shōmu (724-49), a beautiful young woman refuses all suitors until one wins her over with fabulous gifts. She accepts his proposal of marriage and on their wedding night her parents hear her saying “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!“, but think that is only because she was inexperienced. In the morning all they find of her is her head and a finger. As Reider says: “The parents are horrified. People claim it was the work of an oni…”

Was this the end of the story? Well, yeah, in a way, but not as far as this web log goes. It was the end of the road for Shuten-dōji and the terror he struck into the people of Japan. However, let’s not forget those people in the ‘civilized’ West and their fascination with cannibalism. First there is the satirical essay by Jonathan Swift (ジョナサン・スウィフト 1667-1745) first published in 1729 – and remember this is satire: “A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of the poor people in Ireland from being a budren to their parents or countryand for making them beneficial to the public”. Swift says that the infants who survive their first year live on mother’s milk. From the age of 1 to the age of six they aren’t good for much and basically are just a burdensome expense. At least starting around the age of six they can start thieving. Some, of course, will be better than others at it. They can stay in that state until the age of about 12 when they become a marketable commodity. Merchants were wary to traffic in children under the age of twelve because no one was buying.

It is at this point in the telling that Swift gets down to the nitty-gritty – and credits (blames) an American, of all things, on this grand plan: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious and nourishing wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.” Swift went on to suggest a sort of animal husbandry with a ration of one sperm producing male to four fertile females. Furthermore he suggest that a child should be breast fed more in its last month so that it hits the market nice and plump. (Remember, this is satire. Don’t go all p.c. on me, please.) Swift even gives dining suggestion for a family eating alone – “…the fore or hind quarter… seasoned with a little pepper or salt…” – when having guests over. There is more to this essay, but if you want to know what it says read it for yourself. I’m done with it!

Below is a photo of steak tartare posted by Rainer Zenz at


But I am not completely done with the topic. I am only done with the English and the Irish. And don’t get me started on the Germans… Now on to the French and Charles Perrault (シャルル・ペロー 1628-1703). He told us a story about an ogre that eats children in “Le petite poucet”. The ogre was planning on having three of his ogre friends over for dinner and thought he would be nice to serve them Little Tom Thumb’s six larger brothers as a treat.  But enough. I am losing my apetite – permanently. I am sure you understand. Anyone for some sashimi (刺し身) or maybe a little – drool – steak tartare (牛肉のタルタルステーキ)?

Below is some salmon sashimi posted originally by Golf Bravo at Flikr.


By the way, I almost forgot: Herman Melville (ハーマン・メルビル  1819-1891) supposedly lived among a group of cannibals for three months, but got away. Of course, if he had been eaten we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to plow through Moby Dick (白鯨) and I suppose that would make us all blubber (not 鯨脂) like babies.

Below is Hiroshige’s rendition showing Shuten-dōji just before the end. There seems to be a bit of whimsy in this artist’s presentation.


This part was added on July 24, 2014: As I have said before, no post is ever finished. This morning I was doing some casual research on the prints produced by a little known Japanese publisher, Uemura Yohei, when I ran across at Ritsumeikan University an early Kunisada print of Shuten-doji and one of his female attendants who is holding a ceremonial New Year’s saké container. According to the Ritsumeikan page this image was based on a kabuki production from ca. 1815. They identify the actor playing the monster as Ichikawa Danjūrō. This is confirmed by the mimasu pattern of three nested squares displayed across the top of the print, plus the repeating design on the left sleeve of Shuten-doji’s arm. It is subtle, but it is there. It was too good to pass up. See for yourself.

Shuten_doji_Kunisada_1815_Ritsumeikan_7b   Ritsumeikan University

The oldest extant illustration of this story comes from the 14th century – There is a scroll of the Ōeyama ekotaba in the Itsuō Museum. Below shows the scene where Raikō and his men are slaying Shuten-dōji.

Oeyama_ekotoba_Itsuo_Museum_7   Itsuō Museum

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at

1 Comment »

  1. By the way, Jerry, your blog is OVER THE TOP! You ROCK, man! Great, interesting, and very funny read!

    Comment by Mike Lyon — September 17, 2009 @ 8:03 am | Reply

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