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

In Japanese traditional beliefs and literature, onryō (怨霊, lit.'vengeful spirit', sometimes rendered "wrathful spirits" or "hatred spirits")[1] are a type of ghost (yūrei) believed to be capable of causing harm in the world of the living, injuring or killing enemies, or even causing natural disasters to exact vengeance to "redress" the wrongs it received while alive, then taking their spirits from their dying bodies. Onryō are often depicted as wronged women, who are traumatized by what happened during life and exact revenge in death.[2]

The term overlaps somewhat with goryō (御霊), except that in depictions of goryō, the acting ghost is not always necessarily a wrathful spirit.[1]


While the origin of onryō is unclear, belief in 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, harm, and kill the living. The earliest onryō cult that developed was around Prince Nagaya who died in 729;[1] and the first record of possession by the onryō spirit affecting health is found in the chronicle Shoku Nihongi (797), which states that "Fujiwara Hirotsugu (藤原広嗣)'s soul harmed Genbō to death" (Hirotsugu having died in a failed insurrection, named the "Fujiwara no Hirotsugu Rebellion", after failing to remove his rival, the priest Genbō, from power).[3][4] Emperor Antoku (December 22, 1178–April 25, 1185) and Emperor Daigo (February 6, 885–October 23, 930) in were believed to have been onryō.[5]


According to the belief of Ikiryō, a person's soul or spirit exists naturally when it is stable or in balance. When too much hatred or resentment brews, it can become separated from the body, resulting in the spirit becoming an onryō. This can allegedly also occur in individuals who died an untimely death.[6]

Traditionally in Japan, onryō driven by vengeance were thought capable of causing not only their enemy's death, as in the case of Hirotsugu's vengeful spirit held responsible for killing the priest Genbō,[7] but causing natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, storms, drought, famine and pestilence,[1] as in the case of Prince Sawara's spirit embittered against his brother, the Emperor Kanmu.[8] In common parlance, such vengeance exacted by supernatural beings or forces is termed tatari (祟り).[1]

The Emperor Kanmu had accused his brother Sawara, possibly falsely, of plotting to remove him from the throne. Sawara was then exiled, and died by fasting. According to a number of scholars, the reason that the Emperor moved the capital to Nagaoka-kyō thence to Kyoto was an attempt to avoid the wrath of his brother's spirit, according to a number of scholars.[8] This not succeeding entirely, the emperor tried to lift the curse by appeasing his brother's ghost, by performing Buddhist rites to pay respect, and granting Prince Sawara the posthumous title of emperor.[8]

A well-known example of appeasement of the onryō spirit is the case of Sugawara no Michizane, who had been politically disgraced and died in exile. It was believed to cause the death of his calumniators in quick succession, as well as catastrophes (especially lightning damage), and the court tried to appease the wrathful spirit by restoring Michizane's old rank and position.[1] Michizane became deified in the cult of the Tenjin, with Tenman-gū shrines erected around him.


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

Other examples include:

How a Man's Wife Became a Vengeful Ghost and How Her Malignity Was Diverted by a Master of Divination
In this tale from the medieval collection Konjaku Monogatarishū, an abandoned wife is found dead with a full head of hair intact and her bones still attached. The husband, fearing retribution from her spirit, asks a diviner for aid. The husband must endure while grabbing her hair and riding astride her corpse. She complains of the heavy load and leaves the house to "go looking" (presumably for her husband), but after a day she gives up and returns, after which the diviner is able to complete her exorcism with an incantation.[9][10]
Of a Promise Broken
In this tale from the Izumo area recorded by Lafcadio Hearn, a samurai vows to his dying wife never to remarry. He soon breaks this promise, and the ghost of the deceased wife murders her husbands new young bride, ripping her head off. A watchman chases down the apparition, and while slashing his sword recites a Buddhist prayer, destroying the ghost of the dead wife.[11]

In media[edit]

The onryō is a staple of the J-Horror genre, most notable being Sadako Yamamura and Kayako Saeki from the Ring and Ju-On franchises, respectively. The characters in these works are almost exclusively women who were wronged in life and returned as onryō to wreak havoc on the living and obtain revenge.[12]

In The Ring Sadako Yamamura is the main antagonist. Her origin is from the Ring novel series by Koji Suzuki, where she haunts and kills people through tapes on a TV. Before her death she is raped by a doctor with smallpox, who seals her in a well where she dies. Before Sadako dies she promises to take revenge on the world, and becomes an onryō.

The aforementioned Yotsuya Kaidan has been made into numerous movies and retold many times over the course of Japanese history. The story revolves around Tamiya Iemon and his wife Oiwa. Their relationship is not a happy one, and through some set of circumstances Iemon gives Oiwa a powder that permanently disfigures her face. Upon realizing this Oiwa takes her own life and that of her baby. After her death she comes back to haunt Iemon and his new wife, becoming an onryō.[13]

Banchō Sarayashiki is another Japanese ghost story that has been retold many ways. In this story Okiku, a beautiful maid, is the target of desire for the samurai whose house she works at, Aoyama Tessan. She continually refuses his advances, and in a fit of rage Tessan hides one of 10 expensive plates that Okiku is in charge of counting. When Okiku cannot find the 10th plate she recounts them obsessively, panicking more each time. Tessan tells her he will forgive her losing the plate if she becomes his mistress, but even then she refuses him. At her refusal Tessan throws her into a well on the property, where she dies. After this, every night Okiku rises from the well, softly counting to 9, and then letting out a horrendous shriek once she reaches 10. She has become an onryō.[14]

Hisako (久子, "Eternal Child" or "Everlasting Child"), from the third entry of the fighting game Killer Instinct, is an onryō who died while defending her village. She still haunts her old village and will take vengeance on anyone who desecrates its ruins with her naginata. She has pale white skin and long black hair like most onryō.[15]

In 2018, the asymmetrical horror game Dead by Daylight released the Shattered Bloodline chapter DLC, and with it came Rin Yamaoka, The Spirit. The Spirit is an onryō who returns from the dead after being brutally murdered by her father.[16] In March 2022, Sadako Yamamura was added as a playable character.[17]

The term onryō is also present in the game Phasmophobia. It is one of 24 ghost types that the player can identify, and is noted for treating lit candles like a crucifix.

Physical appearance[edit]

Traditionally,[citation needed] onryō and other yūrei (ghosts) 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 (白装束, shiro-shōzoku) or shini-shōzoku (死に装束). This garment was also worn during seppuku.
  • Wild, unkempt long black hair
  • Face make-up consisting of white foundation (oshiroi) coupled with dramatic face painting (kumadori) of blue shadows (藍隈, aiguma) "indigo fringe", much like villains are depicted in kabuki make-up artistry.[18][19][a]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In addition to blue, brown shadows (代赭隈, taishaguma) "red ochre fringe" or black kumadori (日本博学倶楽部 2005, p. 57) are also used.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Grappard, Allan G. (1988), "Religious practices", in Hall, John Whitney (ed.), The Cambridge History of Japan, vol. 2, pp. 559–, ISBN 978-0521223539
  2. ^ Lovelace, A. (2008). "Ghostly and monstrous manifestations of women: Edo to contemporary". The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies. 5: 30–45 – via University of Montana Mansfield Library Online Database.
  3. ^ Suzuki 2011, 135 (note 2 to Chapter 2)
  4. ^ McCullough 1973, p. 97
  5. ^ 大祐, 樋口 (2009). "軍記テクストにおける「亡霊」的なるもの・序論: 「怨霊史観」とその外部をめぐって(年間テーマ・テーマシンポジウム論文,〈古典(学/知/教育)〉2)". 物語研究. 9: 32–44. doi:10.24523/mgkk.9.0_32.
  6. ^ Yamada, Yuji. 怨霊とは何か (What is [an] Onryo). Japan: Chuokoron-Shinsha.
  7. ^ McCullough, William H. (1973), Ōta, Saburo (太田三郎); Fukuda, Rikutaro (福田陸太郎) (eds.), "Spirit Possession in the Heian Period", Studies on Japanese Culture (日本文化研究論集), 1: 97; (Also printed in Nihon Bunka Kenkyū Kokusai Kaigi gijiroku (日本文化研究国際会議議事錄) (Volume 1, 1973, pp. 350- (p.356)
  8. ^ a b c Suzuki, Yui (2011). Medicine Master Buddha: The Iconic Worship of Yakushi in Heian Japan. BRILL. pp. 29–31. ISBN 978-9004196018.
  9. ^ Ages ago; thirty-seven tales from the Konjaku monogatari collection (snippet). Translated by Jones, S. W. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1959. p. 72.
  10. ^ One of the texts cited by Jones: Haga, Yaichi (芳賀矢一), ed. (1921), 卷第廿四/第20: 人妻成悪靈除其害陰陽師語, Kōshō konjaku monogatari shū 攷証今昔物語集, vol. 3, p. 106
  11. ^ Hearn, Lafcadio (1901), "Of a Promise Broken", A Japanese miscellany, Little, Brown, pp. 15–26
  12. ^ O'Sullivan, Dan (2020-10-27). "Japan's Onryō Spirits Inhabit a Purgatory of Revenge and Cosmic Rage". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  13. ^ An Edo anthology : literature from Japan's mega-city, 1750-1850. Shinji Nobuhiro, Kenji Watanabe, Sumie Jones, Howard Hibbett, 延広真治, 渡辺憲司. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press. 2013. ISBN 978-0-8248-3776-1. OCLC 859157616.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  14. ^ "The Kaidan of Bancho Sarayashiki The Dish Mansion at Bancho". Grimoire of Horror. Retrieved 2022-04-11.
  15. ^ "Hisako". 12 December 2016.
  16. ^ "Shattered Bloodline - Dead by Daylight". deadbydaylight.com. Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  17. ^ "Dead by Daylight x Ringu Crossover Revealed". 15 February 2022.
  18. ^ 日本博学倶楽部 (2005). 「通」になれる古典芸能を楽しむ本: 落語・歌舞伎から能・狂言まで. PHP研究所. p. 57. ISBN 978-4569665498.
  19. ^ Parker, Helen S. E. (2006). Progressive Traditions: An Illustrated Study of Plot Repetition In Traditional Japanese Theatre. BRILL. p. 87. ISBN 978-9004145344.


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