From a classical folklore motif to the black haired lady dressed in white in Kabuki Theatre and Japanese horror movies, this ghost called Onryō is still haunting Japan. Clad in her distinct white kimono and long black hair, she will stop at nothing to get her revenge.

In many cultures, ghosts are put in different categories such as the case with Onryō (怨霊), basically means “vengeful spirit” or “wrathful spirit” in Japanese. It is a mythological spirit of vengeance from Japanese folklore. The Onryō is a type of yūrei, meaning ghosts. But these are ghosts with a purpose and as opposed to the yūrei, these ghosts doesn’t just get over their revenge thoughts.

Read More: The Ghosts of Japan

Even though the modern world reject things like ghosts i most cases, Japanese reverence for onryō spirits endures, notably illustrated by the case of Taira no Masakado’s head mound, Masakado-zuka. Even though urban redevelopment projects relocated it several times, each move resulted in accidents and a construction worker’s death. The mound, situated amidst Tokyo’s skyscrapers, remains intact while surrounding buildings have undergone frequent reconstruction. It continues to be meticulously maintained in respect for onryō spirits.

Let us have a closer look to the famous ghost that has a long and varied history from being the main antagonist in movies to women with a tragic fate.

The Origins Of The Onryō

The origins of the Onryō is a bit unclear but can be traced back in written records since the 7th or 8th century in Japan in the late Yamato period when Buddhism were introduced to Japan and the vengeful spirit of an Onryō reminds quite a bit about the hungry ghosts from Buddhism or Preta as it was known as in Sanskrit.

The Ghost: The Onryō has long roots in Japanese ghost mythology
Photo: Sawaki Suushi (佐脇嵩之,)
File:Suushi Yurei.jpg
The Ghost: The Onryō has long roots in Japanese ghost mythology. // Photo: Sawaki Suushi (佐脇嵩之,)

The vengeful spirit manifests when someone is either killed or driven to their death. The person died so filled of rage over the ones that either killed or betrayed them in some way, they will stop at nothing to avenge themselves.

Read also: More ghost stories from Japan

Mostly, the spirit never starts out as evil, and wasn’t an evil person when alive. But the circumstances around their life and particularly around their death made them bit by bit as time went on and anger built up. This type of vengeful spirit are sometimes created from the basis of love, but the jealousy perverted the love so much, it turned to hatred. In both cases, their soul are unable to pass on to be reborn and lingers in the realm of between the living and dead.

In traditional beliefs and literature in Japan and similar spirits across Asia, they causes harm to the living, killing its enemies or in some cases, been blamed for causing natural disaster to get revenge. It feels it was wronged in life and now they have a change to correct that in their afterlife.

Usually it was a victim when alive, but in death, it doesn’t discriminate passing judgment to others, making them their victims.

It is said that the Onryō don’t know how to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent victims, making them dangerous for the living. They also have a tendency to make their victims suffer for as long as possible before murdering them as the torture itself seems to be the goal.

The Female Onryō and the Male Goryō 

The term Onryō is almost exclusively a title that refers to a female ghost today although some of the first example of this type of vengeful spirits were male. There are also cases of the male Onryō told today, but they mainly focus on the topic of restoring their honor after death than the revenge the female spirit often are after.

The term Onryō overlaps somewhat with Goryō (御霊), another type of yūrei, except that goryō is not necessarily a wrathful spirit and is often an upper-class nobleman. The Kanji 御 (go) actually means honorable while 霊 (ryō) means some sort of soul or spirit.

In broad strokes we can generalize the female spirit is an Onryō in most ghost stories and literature, and is after revenge because of a betrayal, while the male spirit, the Goryō, is after revenge because of his honor and he wants to restore it.

Similar Spirits Around the World

As mentioned, the Onryō is similar to many vengeful spirits, especially from Buddhism, but this type of ghost is filtered through Japan’s indigenous nature religion, Shinto. It is not only in Asia we can find ghost stories about a woman dressed in white that comes back after death to haunt the place she died or the people that wronged her.

This type of vengeful ghost is also similar to the Poltergeist in the English and Germanic language that are highly dangerous and can cause physical harm to the living people according to some ghost stories. It is also somewhat similar to the Lady in White we can hear stories from all across Europe and also South America (See La Llorona).

In Asia as a whole the vengeful spirit like the Japanese Onryō is found in many lores, both Chinese, Korean and Thai for example. Most notably perhaps is the Asian Hungry Ghost particular from Chinese folklore and the Korean Virgin Ghost that over the years seems to be merging more and more towards the Onryō.

Read more about vengeful ghosts in Asia:

Ghost of Tu-Po — The Hungry Ghost

After the Chinese nobleman Tu Po was betrayed by his own king and fellow nobles, he became a vengeful ghost, or Hungry Ghost as it is known as in Buddhism. Even in his afterlife he sought revenge on those who betrayed him and fought to restore his honor.

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The Korean Virgin Ghost

The Korean virgin ghost may be based on the ideals that all a woman needs is a husband, but the anger of these spirits tells of a woman with another purpose. And that is mostly vengeance. 

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Fighting The Widow Ghost With Cross Dressing and Erect Penises

When unexplained deaths of seemingly healthy and young men occur around the same time and same place there are many Thai people who believe it is the Widow Ghost who is after their men, and they have their own way of holding the seemingly paranormal death at bay. 

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Hungry Ghosts Causing Disasters

The Onryō is not only dangerous to individuals, but are also believed to be capable of causing extreme havoc. Many plagues, earthquakes, famins, fires, storms and the likes have been connected to the vengeful ghosts. This type of revenge with natural forces are called tatari (祟り) Something that we see in the story of Nagaya’s curse.

Banchō Sarayashiki — the Ghost of Okiku
Illustration of Okiku in the well by Katsushika Hokusai, most known for making the The Great Wave off Kanagawa, painting. From the one hundred ghost tales series.
The Well of Okiku: Did an Onryō put a curse on the wells? Here an illustration from the play Banchō Sarayashiki — the Ghost of Okiku

Nagaya was a prince that died wrongfully. A ghost most called a Goryō, because of his stature and gender. He died in 729, and is one of the earliest records of this type of vengeful spirit.

This was also the earliest case were a cult was formed to show respect and reverence to the dead and to help appease the vengeful spirits. And also, perhaps a bit out of fear that they would feel the wrath of the vengeful spirit. There are several instances were cults for the Onryō were made.

This is not to be confused with the ghosts that comes after a big natural disaster though, as with the case of the Ghosts of the Tsunami for instance, where the ghosts are mostly just trying to get home.

You also have the case of Okiku that died in the well on the property and was said to haunt it and her vengeful spirit was the cause of some natural disasters that affected the wells.

The haunting of Okiku’s ghost told in the Banchō Sarayashiki story, have been widely reported on for centuries. All back in 1795 the old wells in Japan got a larvae infestation that were blamed on the ghost of Okiku.

The larvae infestation on the wells was later known as the “Okiku insect” (お菊虫, okiku mushi). They long thought that the infestation was a reincarnation of Okiku and the cause of the infestation. It is not uncommon that disasters and accidents were the works of vengeful ghosts throughout Asia.

The Kabuki Onryō from the Japanese Theatre

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, much like the Lady in White type of ghost in western lore. This is very prominent in the Myth of Oiwa, who was left by her husband or in the case with Banchō Sarayashiki — the Ghost of Okiku who were wronged by her master she was working for.

Today, the image of the onryō is a quite specific one, clad in all white with loose black hair. This image came with the rise of the dance theater Kabuki in the Edo period in the 1600s, and a specific costume was developed for the onryō to make it recognizable on the stage. Before this time, the ghosts had no particular look. After however, it is a well known sight:

  • A white burial kimono known as shiroshōzoku (白装束),
  • Long, loose and messy hair.
  • Powdered white face with dark eyes
The Onryō look: The Kabuki theatre formed the visual we know today. Here from the movie,  shows the iconic Onryō Sadako from The Ring (リング) (1998), that reinvented the vengeful ghost on TV for the modern audience.
The Onryō look: The Kabuki theatre formed the visual we know today with the long black hair and the long white dress. Here from the movie The Ring that shows the iconic Onryō Sadako from The Ring (リング) (1998), that reinvented the vengeful ghost on TV for the modern audience.

The Modern J-Horror Onryō 

Today the Onryō is mostly known from the modern Japanese horror films as a next step from the Kabuki theatre from the edo period. Perhaps in today’s society the Onryō is mostly known for its appearance in Japanese horror films and books that built upon the lore that was already there.

Most known is the Onryō spirit of Sadako and Kayako from the Ring and The Grudge franchises. So populare are they in fact that they even have their Hollywood remakes from the source material. This goes to show that the story of the scorned woman dressed in white works globally.

And although based on centuries old legends, the fear of this special vengeful spirit still goes on. And with the visuals from the Kabuki make-up department, they also incorporated the specific jarring movement of the crawling out from the TV and twisting inside the cracks of a house.

Ringu Japanese Horror Movie: One of the more famous Onryō today is found in iconic horror movies like in Ringu from 1998.

How To Exorcise an Onryō 

So how do you get rid of an Onryō when one is created according to traditional belief? After all, not all ghost stories can end with the ghost just lingering in the living world forever.

Many theories about how you get rid of a vengeful ghost exists. Since it is such a prominent figure in the Shinto religion, the native spiritual religion of Japan, much of the rituals comes from there. Unlike Buddhism’s thoughts that deceased will be reincarnated within 49 days, the Japanese mix of both Buddhism and Shinto, is slightly different. Often certain measures is needed to get rid of an Onryō.

01 :: SADAKO
Can you get rid of an Onryō: According to legend it is very difficult to appease the vengeful spirit and most ghost stories need some religious intervention to get rid of the spirit. //Source: Anela/flickr

They are said to be very hard to get rid of though. While most yūrei only haunt a person or place until they are exorcised or placated, an Onryō’s grudge-curse continues to infect a location long after the ghost itself is gone. So can one ever get rid of them according to folklore?

Mostly though the trick is just about to find a way to please the spirit. Such was the case with Sugawara no Michizane. He was a vengeful spirit that didn’t leave the capital alone before they built a shrine in his honor. But like the case with Okiku, most measurements are taken to just get out of the Onryōs way alive rather than get rid of the ghost for good.

The Vengeful Spirit of the Onryō

The Onryō continues to haunt Japan’s folklore, literature, and pop culture, captivating audiences with its vengeful spirit and chilling presence. From its mysterious origins in ancient Japanese records to its portrayal in Kabuki theater and modern J-horror films, the Onryō has become an iconic figure in the realm of ghosts.

Although categorized as a specific type of yūrei, the Onryō stands out due to its relentless pursuit of revenge. Born from a tragic fate and consumed by rage, these spirits stop at nothing to avenge themselves against those who wronged them in life. Their vengeful nature transcends boundaries, making them dangerous to both the guilty and the innocent.

The Onryō’s legacy continues to fascinate and frighten, serving as a reminder of the power and intensity of human emotions and the lingering impact they can have beyond the grave. As long as there are tales to be told and fear to be felt, the Onryō will forever haunt the imagination of those who dare to delve into the realm of the vengeful spirits.

So, tread carefully in the darkness, for you never know when the vengeful spirit of the Onryō might appear, driven by an insatiable thirst for revenge that transcends time and space.

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Banchō Sarayashiki — the Ghost of Okiku

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.

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