For the professional wrestler, see Onryo (wrestler).
Onryō from the Kinsei-Kaidan-Shimoyonohoshi (近世怪談霜夜星)

In traditional beliefs of Japan and in literature, onryō (怨霊, literally "vengeful spirit", sometimes rendered "wrathful spirit"[1]) refers to a ghost (yūrei) believed capable of causing harm in the world of the living, harming or killing enemies, or even causing natural disasters to exact vengeance to redress the wrongs it received while alive then takes their spirits from their dying bodies.

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.[1]


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 earliest onryō cult that developed around Prince Nagaya who died in 729;[1] and the first record of possession by the onryō spirit affecting the 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).[2][3]

Onryō vengeance

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,[4]), 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 Kammu.[5] In common parlance, such vengeance exacted by supernatural beings or forces is termed tatari (祟り).[1]

The Emperor Kammu had accused his brother Sawara of plotting (possibly falsely to remove him as rival to the throne), and the latter who was exiled died by fasting. 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.[5] 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.[5]

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. 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.

Examples of onryō vengeance

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 isn't physical retribution, but rather psychological torment.

Other examples include:

In this tale from the medieval collection, Konjaku Monogatarishū, an abandoned wife is found dead with a full head of hair intact and the bones still attached. The husband, fearing retribution from her spirit, asks a diviner (陰陽師 onmyōji) 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 the husband), but after a day she gives up and returns, after which the diviner is able to complete her exorcism with an incantation.[6][7]
In this tale from the Izumo area recorded by Lafcadio Hearn, a samurai vows to his dying wife never to remarry. He soon breaks the promise, and the ghost comes to first warn, then murder the young bride, ripping her head off. The watchmen who had been put to sleep chase down the apparition, and with a slash of the sword while reciting Buddhist prayer, destroys it.[8]

Physical appearance

Traditionally, 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:

See also


Explanatory notes

  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)


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Grappard, Allan G., Hall, John Whitney, ed., The Cambridge History of Japan, 2, pp. 559–, ISBN 0521223539 https://books.google.com/books?id=eiTWWfoyuyAC&pg=PA560 Missing or empty |title= (help); |contribution= ignored (help)
  2. For a source that identifies Hirotsugu as onryō, see:Suzuki 2011, 135 (note 2 to Chapter 2)
  3. A source that gives Hirotsugu as first example on record of "etiological possession" is McCullough 1973, p. 97
  4. 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), The Japan P.E.N. Club, 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)
  5. 1 2 3 Suzuki, Yui (2011). Medicine Master Buddha: The Iconic Worship of Yakushi in Heian Japan. BRILL. pp. 29–31. ISBN 9004196013.
  6. Jones, S. W. (translator), ed. (1959). Ages ago; thirty-seven tales from the Konjaku monogatari collection (snippet). Harvard University Press. p. 72.
  7. One of the texts cited by Jones: Haga, Yaichi (芳賀矢一), ed. (1921), 攷証今昔物語集 (Kōshō konjaku monogatari shū), 3 (下), p. 106 http://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/945416 Missing or empty |title= (help); |chapter= ignored (help)
  8. Hearn, Lafcadio (1901), A Japanese miscellany, Little, Brown, pp. 15–26 https://books.google.com/books?id=DGEiAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA15 Missing or empty |title= (help); |chapter= ignored (help)
  9. 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 4569665497.
  10. Parker, Helen S. E. (2006). Progressive Traditions: An Illustrated Study of Plot Repetition In Traditional Japanese Theatre. BRILL. p. 87. ISBN 9004145346.


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