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Onryō from the Kinsei-Kaidan-Simoyonohoshi (近世怪談霜夜星)

Onryō (怨霊) are mythological spirits from Japanese folklore who are able to return to the physical world in order to seek vengeance for their past lives.

While male Onryō characters can be seen, mainly in kabuki, the majority of them are women. Onryō are powerless when in the physical world. Their death are often caused by sufferings given to them by the capricious whims of their male lovers. They get spiritual powers after death.

Origin of onryō[edit]

While the origin of Onryō is unclear, their existence can be traced back to the 8th Century and was based on the idea that powerful and enraged souls of the dead could influence or harm the living people.

The traditional Japanese spirit world consists of three layers: heaven, the world of living and the world of the dead. Regardless of who the person was before death, all spirits go to Yomi when they died, even the kami (deities). While it is impossible for the dead to come back to the world of the living anymore; according to Japanese mythology, powerful dead spirits could influence the living either out of good will or malice. Kojiki (711-2), the oldest Japanese book which narrates Japanese history beginning from its creation mythology, tells that when the goddess Izanami died she was able to cast a curse from Yomi on the land of living. In a similar sense, Onryō refers specifically to human souls transformed by extreme emotions to do such harm. The earliest remaining record of Onryō is found in Shoku Nihongi (797): a high ranked courtier Fujiwara no Hirotsugu (died in 740 ja:藤原広嗣), who lost power and was defeated in a failed rebellion against Genbō is mentioned after his death as "Hirotsugu's soul harmed Genbō to death".[1]

Onryō vengeance[edit]

Onryō were believed to be driven by a desire for vengeance, as in the example of Hirotsugu's revenge against Genbō. The form of their revenge varied, from the misfortunes of former enemies to natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, storms, famine and pestilence.

The Shinto historical text, Shoku Nihongi, does not provide clear relations between disasters and onryō, with minor exceptions like those of courtiers, it records several disasters in the late 8th centuries and rehabilitation of some then deceased royals in punishment and similar high ranked courtiers, as if the latter was response to the former. The form of rehabilitation by the imperial court sometimes culminated to their worship, their elevation to kami and thus dedication of shrines to those then deities, for example, as Prince Sawara and Sugawara no Michizane.

Though they do not always follow the ideal of justified revenge,[citation needed] for example, several tales[citation needed] involve abusive husbands, but these husbands are rarely the target of the onryō's vengeance.[citation needed]

Examples of onryō vengeance[edit]

  • How a Man's Wife Became a Vengeful Ghost and How Her Malignity Was Diverted by a Master of Divination - A neglected wife is abandoned and left to die. She is transformed into an Onryō, and torments a local village until banished. Her husband remains unharmed.
  • Of a Promise Broken - A samurai vows to his dying wife never to remarry. He soon breaks the promise, and his former wife's Onryō beheads the new bride.
  • Furisode - A heartbroken woman curses her famously beautiful kimono before dying. After, everyone who wears the garment soon dies.
  • The Grudge & Ju-on franchises - Both feature a woman murdered by her husband along with their child resurrecting as an Onyrō.

Possibly the most famous Onryō is Oiwa, from Yotsuya Kaidan. In this story the husband remains unharmed; however, he is the target of the Onryō’s vengeance. Oiwa's vengeance on him isn't physical retribution, but rather psychological torment.

  • 'Yokai X Ju-on Series - A popular school girl was murdered by her brother and she is resurrecting as an Onyrō. The main characters will had a precognition when a diaster happens.

The appearance of an onryō[edit]

Traditionally,[citation needed] Onryō and other yūrei had no particular appearance. However, with the rising of popularity of Kabuki during the Edo period, a specific costume was developed.

Highly visual in nature, and with a single actor often assuming various roles within a play, Kabuki developed a system of visual shorthand that allowed the audience to instantly clue in as to which character is on stage, as well as emphasize the emotions and expressions of the actor.

A ghost costume consisted of three main elements:

  • White burial kimono
  • Wild, unkempt long black hair
  • White and indigo face make-up called Aiguma.

The Onryō bears a striking similarity to the demonic Kuntilanak and Sundel Bolong of Indonesian folklore.

See also[edit]



  • Iwasaka, Michiko and Toelken, Barre. Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experiences in Japanese Death Legends, Utah State University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-87421-179-4

External links[edit]