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.

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.

The Origins Of The Onryō

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 origins of the Onryō is a bit unclear but can be traced back in written records since the 7th or 8th century. The vengeful spirit 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.

Mostly, the spirit never started out as evil, and wasn’t an evil person when alive. But the circumstances around their life and particularly around their death made them so. Onryōs 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 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.

The Female Onryō and the Male Goryō 

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The Onryō is almost exclusively a title that refers to a female ghost. There are also cases of the male Onryō, but they mainly focus on the topic of honour than of the more revengeful nature. The term 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.

In broad strokes we can generalize the female spirit is an Onryō, and is after revenge because of a betrayal, while the male spirit, the Goryō, is after revenge because of his honor.

Similar Spirits Around the World

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. It is also somewhat similar to the Lady in White we can hear stories from all across Europe and also South America (See La Llorna).

In Asia as a whole the Onryō is found in many lores, both Chinese, Korean, Thai etc as a vengeful spirit is found in many forms, most notably known as a hungry ghost for example.

Read more about Hungry Ghosts in Asia:

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Ghost of Tu-Po — The Hungry Ghost

The Chinese ghost story about the vengeful ghost of Tu Po, a nobleman’s haunting quest to restore his honor.

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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 for example.

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He 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.

The Kabuki Onryō 

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.

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, 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. 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 Modern J-Horror Onryō 

Today the Onryō is mostly known for Japanese horror films as a next step from the Kabuki theatre. Perhaps in today’s society the Onryō is mostly known for its appearance in Japanese horror films and books.

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.

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.

Some famous Onryō in Media and History:

  • Kayako Saeki: Ju-On franchise
  • Sadako Yamamura: The Ring franchise
  • The Myth of Oiwa
  • Sugawara no Michizane
  • Prince Nagaya
  • Hisako (久子, “Eternal Child”

How To Exorcise an Onryō 

Many theories about how you get rid of a vengeful ghost exist. 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.

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 it 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.

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References:

www.yokai.com/onryou/

Onryō | Yokai Wiki | Fandom

Onryō – Japanese Ghost of Vengeance

Japan’s Onryō Spirits Inhabit a Purgatory of Revenge and Cosmic Rage

Onryo (Revengeful Ghost)

Iwasaka, Michiko and Toelken, BarreGhosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experiences in Japanese Death LegendsUtah State University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-87421-179-4

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