Kosodate Yūrei, from the meiji period by Yasuda Beisai
Kosodate Yūrei, from the meiji period by Yasuda Beisai

In many cultures, ghosts are put in different categories. Such is the case with Onryō (怨霊 onryō,) It basically means “vengeful spirit” or “wrathful spirit” in Japanese and is a mythological spirit of vengeance from Japanese folklore. They also have ghosts, called yurei, but these differ in the will of the ghost. As opposed to the yurei, these ghosts doesn’t just get over their revenge thoughts.

The Onryō manifests when someone is either killed or driven to their death. They died so filled of rage over the ones that killed them, they will stop at nothing to avenge themselves. Sometimes, an Onryō are created from the basis of love. but the jealousy perverted the love so much, it turned to hatred. In both cased their soul are unable to pass on.

In traditional belies and literature the Onryō causes harm to the living, killing its enemies or in some cases, been blamed for causing natural disaster to give vengeance. It feels it was wronged in life and now they have a change to correct that. Usually, it was a victim when alive, but in death, it doesn’t discriminate passing judgment to others, making them their victims. They don’t know how to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent victims, making them dangerous. They also have a tendency to make their victims suffer for as long as possible before murdering them. They are also hard to get rid of. While most yūrei only haunt a person or place until they are exorcised or placated, an onryō’s horrible grudge-curse continues to infect a location long after the ghost itself has been laid to rest.

They are often girls and women. There are also cases of the male Onryō, but they mainly focus on the topic of honour. The term overlaps somewhat with goryō (御霊), except that in the cult of the goryō, the acting agent need not necessarily be a wrathful spirit and is often an upper-class nobleman. It is also similar to the Poltergeist in the English and Germanic language and the hungry ghosts throughout Asia.

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Japanese ghost

The Ghosts of Japan

In Japan, the ghosts are called Yūrei (幽霊). The word means faint or dim and soul or spirit. And as well as language and cultures divides different types of ghost in different categories, so does the Japanese. Here are some of those.

Banchō Sarayashiki – the Ghost of Okiko

The tale of Banchō Sarayashiki (番町皿屋敷, The Dish Mansion at Banchō) is a well known Japanese ghost story (kaidan). It was popularized in the kabuki theater tradition, and lives on in popular culture and folklore alike.

Japanese paper lanterns

The Myth of Oiwa – the Paper Lantern Ghost

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young woman who died. She went on a murderous rampage and she forever haunts the place of Yotsuya. The end.

Onryo English: Yūrei ゆふれい from Bakemono no e (化物之繪, c. 1700), Harry F. Bruning Collection of Japanese Books and Manuscripts, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Date circa 1700 Source https://archive.org/details/bakemonozukushie00 Author Brigham Young University

Onryō – the Vengeful Japanese Spirit

In many cultures, ghosts are put in different categories. Such is the case with Onryō (怨霊 onryō,) It basically means “vengeful spirit” or “wrathful spirit” in Japanese and is a mythological spirit of vengeance from Japanese folklore. They also have ghosts, called yurei, but these differ in the will of the ghost. As opposed to the yurei, these ghosts doesn’t just get over their revenge thoughts.

In traditional beliefs of Japan and in literature, onryō is a ghost (yurei) who is able to return to the physical world in order to seek vengeance. Onryo are believed capable of causing harm in the world of the living, ailing or killing enemies, or even causing natural disasters to exact vengeance to redress the wrongs it received while alive. Not only accidents, but full blown disasters like fire, storms, drought, famine, eartquake and pestilence. This revenge with the use of supernatural forces is called tatari (祟り) Something that we see in the story of Nagaya’s curse.

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The Modern Onryō

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ”The Ghosts of Togo and His Wife”. The print depicts a scene from a play about common people taking revenge over the samurai overlords.

Many of the Japanese ghost stories are built upon the legend of the onryō. From the early ghost stories to pop culture movies and books. What most people today think of when thinking of the onryō is the scorned woman. With the rise of the dance theater Kabuki in the Edo period a specific costume was developed. Before this time, the ghosts had no particular look. After however, it is a well known sight. A white burial kimono, long, loose and messy hair, white face with dark eyes. Sounds familiar?

Yes, I am of course thinking of the creepy Sadako Yamamura and Kayako Saeki. Perhaps in today’s society, the onryō is most known for appearing in several Japanese horror movies. Especially the Ring book and movie series and the Ju-On movie series were these two examples of the onryō legend appears.

Both these iconic figures, especially in the Ju-On series is inspired by a particular onryō legend. It is the myth of Oiwa that is seeking revenge on her husband after he killed her.

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