Mythology Monday: Japanese Ghosts Don’t Fuck Around


So, this Monday I’m doing something a little different from what I’ve normally done with these posts, where I’ve summarized stories from various mythologies. This time, I’m more going to discuss the background of a creature from a mythology.

Today, I want to talk about the most terrifying of all Japanese ghosts, the onryou.

Onryou is a word that literally means “vengeful spirit” or “wrathful ghost,” so you can kind of guess what their deal is. They are the spirits of people who were wronged in life, and are so pissed off about it that they can’t rest. Man, I know the feeling. I’ve been so angry about shit I couldn’t sleep before too.

Anyway, like ghosts in a lot of folklore, they will haunt and often kill the one who wronged them. Unlike a lot of ghosts, however, they have also been blamed for natural disasters, such as earthquakes. In fact, the 50th emperor of Japan, Kenmu, was so terrified of onryou that he had his entire court moved to Kyoto to avoid the spirit of his brother, who died in exile.

So, what does an onryou look like? Well, even though tales of onryou have been around since the 7th or 8th centuries CE, they didn’t really get a set appearance until kabuki theater started getting big during the Edo period (1603-1868). Here, onryou were depicted as pale-faced, with long, wild black hair and wearing a white burial kimono.

Besides folklore, onryou have become a staple in modern Japanese horror. Sadako from Ring and Kayako from Ju-On are probably examples of onryou that most western audiences would be familiar with. The ghost version of Cynthia from the video game Silent Hill 4 also strongly resembles an onryou, minus the white kimono.

As noted by the title of this post, onryou do not fuck around. To demonstrate this point, a tale:

Once, there was a samurai whose wife was dying. As she was doing this, she made him promise that he would never remarry after she was gone. He does, and she dies. And, because the samurai is a huge dick, he immediately breaks this promise and marries a woman from the local village.

This, understandably, pisses the dead wife off, so she goes to pay her husband’s current wife a visit. And by “pay her a visit,” I actually mean “rip her fucking head off.” I think it would’ve made more sense for her to go after the husband, but whatever.

Anyway, the guards spot her, and then destroy the ghost with swords and Buddhist prayers.

So, yeah. Don’t fuck with onryou. They will fuck your shit clean up.

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