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Onryo: Duality of Vengeful Spirits and Japanese Ghost Stories

Onryō (怨霊, Vengeful ghost that manifests in physical (rather than spectral form) from the Kinsei-Kaidan-Simoyonohoshi (近世怪談霜夜星)
Onryo by Hokusai(怨霊, Vengeful ghost that manifests in physical (rather than spectral form) from the Kinsei-Kaidan-Simoyonohoshi (近世怪談霜夜星) (Wikipedia)

Onryo – Japanese vengeful spirits or ghost, now popular thanks to the films such as The Ring, The Grudge or Dark Water. Is Onryo only female who have pitch-black long hair covering up her face putting white floaty clothes on? That’s far from the truth. Let’s take a look at Onryo history and their stories.

What is Onryo?

Traditional Japanese belief states that every human being has a soul called Tamashii or Reikon. Normal progression for the Tamashii is to become a protector over remaining family members.

The Yurei, Japanese ghost is a tamer version of the Onryo. The Yurei only tends to go for the person who wronged them.

However, if a person dies an unnatural, traumatic death, or if their final rites aren’t properly performed, the Reikon becomes an Onryo which wreck havoc on everyone’s sanity. Onryo, a powerful wrathful spirit seeks vengeance on anyone and anything it encounters.

Often they were victims of war, catastrophe, betrayal, murder, or suicide and they appear as the way they died displaying his/her wounds or marks.

The most famous Onryo in Japan would be Sugawara-no-Michizane, who we would see in the later section in the Heian period. However, The idea of Onryo has its roots way before that.

Their vengeance is their food and they prefer letting the object of their hatred live a long life of torment and suffering instead of killing them immediately.

They inflict a terrible curse on the people or places that they haunt. This curse can be transmitted to others through contact with a contagious disease, creating a circle of death or destruction that is far more devastating than any ordinary ghost.

Onryo plays a huge role in Japanese mythology, folklore, and storytelling. Japan has always had a rich literary, theatrical, and cinematic relationship with its ghosts and its tales of horror. Popular ones are depicted in many forms; books, ukiyo-e, kabuki, noh, kyogen, and film.

Male Onryo

There is some misunderstanding about Onryo that they are only female ones with black long hair exists as Onryo. Wrong. There are many Onryo who is male and it seems like the greater the position he had had while he was alive, the greater the curse and the disaster.

Perhaps male grudge can be greater than female one because they put importance on honor. Let us introduce you three most famous male Onryo, who are believed to haunt us even today.

Sugawara no Michizane

Sugawara no Michizane as Onryo
Sugawara no Michizane as Onryo (orums.catholic.com)

Sugawara no Michizane was born in 845 and he was exceptionally talented in poetry both for Kanshi (poetry in Chinese) and Waka (poetry in Japanese).

One of the notable achievement he’s done as a politician, he abolished sending missions to Tang China in 894. Looking at the fact that Tang China was overthrown in 907, Michizane had an insight into the international situation.

He was selected as Minister of the Right (high-rank official) by Emperor Uda while he was an excellent scholar.

However, within the abdication of Emperor Uda, Michizane’s position became increasingly vulnerable. The political enemy Fujiwara Tokihira forced him to leave Heian-kyo (Kyoto) to Kyusyu Dazaifu, way far from the capital and died indignantly.

Tokihira Fujiwara, who attempted to oust Michizane died at the age of 30 and his son died, too. A man who hampered Emperor Uda to oppose the oust of Michizane died an instant death by the lightning.

Many of the members who were gathered and planning to oust him at the Seiryo-den died also of the lightning. Emperor Daigo witnessed the lightening hit there and people died, became sick and died after three months.

Anyone who plotted to oust Michizane died one after another.

The courtiers were totally afraid of the Tatari – the dreadful curse – so they brought back the sons of Michizane who were in exile to the capital to settle the situation.

They restored Michizane’s rank, promoted him to Dajo-Daijin (the Grand Minister) posthumously and enshrined him in Tanmangu, Kyoto.

He is revered as a god of education today for his exceptional intelligence.

Taira no Masakado

People are looking at the head of Taira no Masakado on the board
Taira no Masakado Ichidai-zue (hachi-style.jugem.jp)

Taira no Masakado was a samurai in the Heian period who led one of the largest insurgent forces in the period against the court in Kyoto.

The rebel failed and he was murdered, his head was put in the open air in Kyoto.

However, his head seemed fresh even after a few days past, even his eyes opened widely saying where is my body?! Do come back to my head and I’ll have another battle! It’s said that people heard his screaming it night by night.

One night, his head once again shouted claiming his body back, his head flew away to Edo (present Tokyo). Where his head fell off now it’s called Masakado no Kubizuka, the grave of Masakado’s head, frightened locals built the grave and he was enshrined at Kanda Myojin (Shrine) in 1309.

It’s been removed once the Kanto Great Earthquake struck the area, finance ministry officials died in accidents and in a strange death

In the Postwar era, when GHQ (General Headquarters of the Allied Forces) tried to build the parking lot, a bulldozer overturned and the worker was dead.

Until this day, Masakdo is still the object of the awe and his grave has been taken good care of. Now he is considered to be the guardian spirit of Tokyo.

Emperor Sutoku

Sutokuin (Emperor Sutoku) as Onryo of Lightening
Sutokuin (Emperor Sutoku) as Onryo of Lightening

Emperor Sutoku was born under the unfortunate star. There were numerous Imperial succession disputes until Emperor Sutoku took the throne.

In 1156, right before he began to reign, the Hogen Rebellion occurred which he failed to put down, Sutoku escaped from a death, but had to exile in Sanuki-no-kuni (present Shikoku region).death but had to exile in Sanuki-no-kuni (present Shikoku region).

After Sutoku’s abdication and exile, he devoted himself to monastic life. He copied numerous Buddhist scriptures with his blood and offered them to the court.

Fearing that the scriptures were cursed, the court refused to accept them and sent it back with the scripture was torn.

Snubbed, Sutoku was said to have resented the court furiously, hurried to the garden and bit the tips of his tongue and wrote down the curse words wishing the ruin of the court.

Upon his death, he became an Onryo.

Everything from the subsequent fall in the fortune of the Imperial court, the rise of the samurai powers, droughts and internal unrests were blamed on his haunting.

After his death, there were great calamities almost every hundred years until the Warring States period. 700 years later, when Emperor Meiji acceded, he brought back the spirit of Sutoku to Kyoto and enshrined in Shiramine Jingu Shrine.

Finally, his spirit came back to where he desired to be.

It is to bring about a reconciliation with him, dedicate him to be the protector of the country. This unique way of dedicating vengeance spirit is called Goryo Shinko, which we will take a look in the later section.

Alternatively, he was said to have transformed into an Ootengu (greater tengu).

Tengu: The Legendary Japanese Creature of the Mountain

Japanese Ghost Stories

Yotsuya Kaidan – Ghost Story of Yotsuya

Lady Oiwa in Yotsuya Kaidan
Lady Oiwa in Yotsuya Kaidan (tattooartistmagazineblog.com)

It’s a ghost story which was written based on the incident in the Edo period. There was a woman who is said to be the model of this story.

The storyline goes like this: Oiwa, happily married wife got betrayed and murdered by her husband Iemon, becomes an Onryo takes revenge on him.

Since it’s the most famous Onryo story, it has several varieties and we will introduce you two of them.

The first one is research report which was submitted to the shogunate at the time. The report addresses the local tales and topography. A part of the report tells a creepy story of Yotsuya town that 18 dead which was claimed to be Oiwa’s grudge.Yotsuya town that 18 dead which was claimed to be Oiwa’s grudge.

A couple, Iemon Tamiya and his wife, Oiwa lived happily until Iemon met a woman of his boss. He committed bigamy, had a child of her. When Oiwa found out this, she went mad and missing.

Since then, people around Iemon began to die one by one unnatural death. After Tamiya family discontinued its lineage, someone moved in on the site of the Tamiya family and experienced strange incidents.

He donated Inari (god of harvest) statue to his family temple, Myoko-ji, asked the priest to perform the rites for the dead, strange phenomenon had stopped.

Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan
Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (blogimg.goo.ne.jp)

The second one is Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, which was written by Tsuruya Nanboku as a screenplay for Kabuki Kyogen.

Ruthless samurai Iemon Tamiya wants to marry Oiwa and when her father refuses, Iemon kills him and disposes of the body with the assistance of Naosuke.

Later, tiring of his wife and wishing to marry the heiress Ume Ito, Iemon plots to murder his wife by mixing a poison into her tea and also killing her admirer Takuetsu.

Her face disfigured and health deteriorates into a slow agonizing death. The ghosts of Oiwa and Takuetsu appear and take vengeance on Iemon and his new wife.

Oiwa died on February 22, 1636, and buried at a temple in Sugamo, Edo.

The legend has it that a curse accompanies her story and that those who retell it will suffer injuries and even death.

To this day, every member who relates to the project from producers, actors to their crews continues to visit the grave of Oiwa in Tokyo before productions or adaptations of Yotsuya Kaidan, praying for her soul and asking for her blessing to tell her story once again. Most importantly, not to curse on them.

Funayurei -Ship Ghost

Funayurei - Ship Ghost
Funayurei – Ship Ghost (google.com)

Funayurei is the ghost which believed to sink ships by scooping sea water into it. The Funayurei then use those to lure the living captains of nearby boats to veer off the course, normally to their deaths.

Some versions have the Funayurei being let aboard, preying on the emotions of the unwitting sailors. Once aboard, the ghost will ask for a special tool called a Hisyaku that is similar to a ladle.

They appear often on a rainy day or a new moon or full moon, especially on a night with dense fog. Also, they are said to possess supernatural powers, with the ability to make any number of ghostly ships appear.

They are said to be those who were dead by drawing, try to drag the living into their circle. There is some way you can escape from it by throwing rice balls in the sea or preparing a bottomless ladle.

Singing Skull

Human skull model
Human skull model (eznetshoppers.com)

It’s a local tale of Koshiki-Shima in Kagoshima.

A long time ago, there were two merchants who were ambitious to make a fortune on the market. One was doing fabulously well, made a lot of money and pleased with it while the other one was making no money at all. The latter one was quite envious of the other, killed him, stole his money and spent three years after loafing.

One day, the merchant walked along the path once he and his dead partner were walking along together, he heard the beautiful singing voice from the bush. He got suspicious and looked into the bush to find the skeleton, which was singing the song.

Appalled the merchant, the skeleton told him he would sing wherever the merchant pleases. He brought it with him thinking he would make money out of it.

He visited a rich man and told him he had a skeleton which sings. The rich didn’t buy his story, however, the merchant told him he would give his head if the skeleton wouldn’t sing. Also, when the skeleton sang, he would receive the rich’s fortune. He made a deal.

The merchant showed the skeleton telling it to sing, however, it didn’t sing. The merchant was trying hard to make it sing umpteen times only to fail. Got outrageous, the rich put the long sword in his hands and beheaded the merchant for deceiving him.

Soon as the head cut off, the skeleton began singing My wish came true! The skeleton was the partner of the merchant who got killed by him, made his revenge three years after his death.

Ghost Mask

Noh Theater: Meaning of Masks of “Yugen” Beauty

Yase-Onna – Skinny Woman

Noh Mask of Yase Onna
Yase Onna (nohmask21.com)

A female mask who died still holding the grudge. There is also a mask of Skinny Man. It shows masochistic glee.

It’s a mask of tormented ghost having passive introverted expressions, seen particularly in the loose downward turned lips and lack of lower teeth. Appearing almost like a skeleton come to life with a haunting beauty.

It’s used in the play Kinuta.

Deigan – Mudded Eye

Noh Mask of Deigan
Noh Mask of Deigan (Pinterest)

Its name comes from the decoration of gold mud on the white of the eye. It expresses the fixation of her which is mixed emotions of jealousy and control. It’s used in the Noh play of Teika and Aoi-no-ue.

It can be used as goddesses or possessed spirits.

Hashi-Hime – Princess Bridge

Noh Mask of Hashi-Hime
Noh Mask of Hashi-Hime (plaza.rakuten.co.jp)

Hashi-Hime is a mask which expresses the grudge or the jealousy of a woman who was buried to death for constructing the bridge. You can feel her resentment from the mask.

It’s exclusively used in the Noh play of Kanawa.

Hannya

Noh Mask of Hannya by Noh Mask Artist Mugen Sugawara
Noh Mask of Hannya by Noh Mask Artist Mugen Sugawara (ameblo.jp)

One of the most famous Noh masks, Hannya expresses the grudge, anger, and sadness at the same time. The term Hannya comes from the creator Hannya-bo.

It represents the angry spirit who takes on the guise of a snake or dragon to carry out their vengeance. However, Hannya is translated as Wisdom as you can see in the Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra. It’s used in the Noh play of Dojo-ji Temple.

Goryo Shinko – The Belief of Vengeful Spirits

Perhaps, one of the unique features of Japanese culture, the grudge soul can be kami (deity) once it is worshiped or enshrined properly.

Usually, it’s said that this belief began in the Heian period (794-1185), but we can trace back its origin before, in the Nara period. There was a Conspiracy of Prince Nagaya, which ended up with the death of Prince Nagaya and Emperor Shomu moved its capital and build the Great Buddha to calm his soul.

Why the Nara period? It is the time the capital was established and courtiers put more focus on politics. Countless political issues were created for entrapping the opponents for one’s promotion. Many ousters who ended up dead deeply chagrined were thought to come back to the capital and do the revenge.

It is a unique belief to give the honor posthumously, using the fiction to calm the lost souls. It isn’t confined only to stories, but in the art, paintings, songs, performing arts, any entertainment form.

In addition to that, there is the Kotodama Shinko, strongly believe the power in uttered words. The louder the voice, the more powerful energy it has to unleash the power.

Since placating of the vengeance spirits, Onryo, into protective kami through ritual and entitlement is the most important task in the Heian politics, they created a lot of poems to calm them. That’s why many Emperors put their hearts in compiling poems such as Kokin-Wakashu (A Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry).

During the Heian period Onryo Shinko was so pervasive there was even a ceremony in the Imperial Court welcoming new spirits into the ranks of protective spirits.

There are two shrines that remain devoted to Goryo Shiko: the Upper and Lower Goryo Shrine in Kyoto.

The Repose of Souls

It’s considered the Yamato court started the ritual of repose of souls by calming enemies’ souls. By calming their souls, they tried to prevent the disaster by sealing off the souls of rebel and vanquished.

The way to the repose of souls was to enshrine the vengeful spirit as kami in Shinto Shrines and perform the ritual.

Shinto Shrine: History, Architecture, and Functions

Over time, the ritual was performed for Emperor as it had been deified, which was originally meant for the state in the previous era.

The object of repose became more individual after this time, the ritual called Goryo-e began, which repose the souls of individuals.

Shinto Beliefs: 5 Core Values of Japanese Indigenous Religion

Genji Monogatari – The Tale of Genji

Genji Monogatari (The Tale of the Genji), which is considered to be the world’s first modern novel can be received as one of the Chinkon novels. The Japanese acquired the technique to the repose of souls by storytelling, let losers flourish in the fictional world a story.

What kind of the structure a story has to have for the repose of souls? There are two. One is to write from the loser’s side and the other is writing for the dead from the point of view of the living to console their souls.

The reason why Genji Monogatari was born can be assumed by looking at who Murasaki Shikibu, the author, served. She served the Empress of Fujiwara family, which annihilated the opponent Minamoto family (Genji).

Fujiwara Michinaga, the top of the Fujiwara family, encouraged her to write the story of the Genji.

Why the winner writes a story of the loser? It’s to the repose of their souls, not to bring any disaster. That’s why It’s the Tale of Genji and only Genji family name was used in the story.

Why do spirits become Onryo? It’s because people don’t let go of their negative feelings.

The Tale of Genji: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
The Tale of Genji: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)Written in the eleventh century, this exquisite portrait of courtly life in medieval Japan is widely celebrated as the world’s first novel. It’s about affairs with Genji, the Shining Prince, who is the son of Emperor.

Heike Monogatari – The Tale of Heike

Heike Monogatari is considered to be written by Shinanozenji Yukinaga aka Fujiwara no Yukinaga. It’s a war tale about the rise and fall of the Taira family (Heike).

It depicts the comparison between Minamoto family and Heike family. It covers the Genpei Gassen which was said to be caused by the Onryo of Sutokuin (Emperor Sutoku).

Jien, the top Tendai Buddhist, who is an author of Gukansho, encouraged Yukinaga to write Heike Monogatari for the repose of the souls of Taira family. Jien believed that if anything bad happens, look for Onryo.

The Tale of the Heike (Penguin Classics)
The Tale of the Heike (Penguin Classics)The fourteenth-century Tale of the Heike is Japan’s Iliad—a moving depiction of the late twelfth-century wars between the Heike and Genji clans. No work has had a greater impact on later Japanese literature, theater, music, film, and manga—indeed on the Japanese people’s sense of their own past.

Taiheiki – Chronicle of Great Peace

It has written in the late 14th century and deals primarily with the Nanboku-cho, the period of war between the Northern Court of Ashikaga Takauji in Kyoto, and the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo in Yoshino.

We can see the influence of the Buddhism, still, Onryo was blamed for a succession of disturbances between the Northern Court of Ashikaga Takauji in Kyoto, and the Southern Court of Emperor Godaigo in Yoshino.

These battles are historically very important as they led to the extinction of the Southern Court of the Japanese Imperial Line, which to this day is seen as legitimate.

Onryo was perceived as the powerful force which has a tremendous influence on society.

The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan (Tuttle Classics)
The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan (Tuttle Classics)In its pages, you will find a vivid contemporary description of the fourteenth-century intrigues and battles that led to the destruction of the Hojo family, the military overlords of the nation, and made it possible for the Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339), one of Japan’s most remarkable sovereigns, to reassert the power of the throne.

Onryo in Noh

Noh Mask of Ayakashi wore in Funayurei
Noh Mask of Ayakashi wore in “Funayurei” (ameblo.jp)

Most of the characters in Noh play are Onryo and there are numerous Noh masks which represent Onryo as we have seen above.

The basic scenario of the Onryo story goes like this. First, a traveling priest appears and he meets an incarnation of Onryo. He talks about his past glory and later he, Onryo appears with his original appearance, talks about his grudge and dreadful sufferings. In the end, the priest releases Onryo from sufferings.

There is a risk to be possessed by Onryo if an actor is not protected. Noh masks are the object of to which a spirit is summoned, while they are the boundary to protect actors not to be possessed. Noh Masks themselves are kami (deities) and the objects to which a spirit is drawn or summoned.

Zeami, the master of Noh, made it possible to perform Onryo stories as entertainment by using Mugen-Noh method which has masks to draw divine or vengeance spirit to it.

Performing the Onryo story in Noh is the way of the repose of souls.

The power of the dead was still blamed for the many great social upheavals and still is today in Japan. In Buddhism, they teach not to attach yourself to anything, anybody. When people can let go of their attachment, Onryo would not be born but it’s doubtful such a day come very soon.born but it’s doubtful such a day come very soon.born but it’s doubtful such a day come very soon.born but it’s doubtful such a day come very soon.

References

怨霊 (Wikipedia)
御霊信仰 (Wikipedia)
祟り (Wikipedia)
Goryo Shinko – The Religion of Ghosts (hyakumonogatari.com)
本当に「平家物語」は平家の怨霊を慰めるためにつくられたのか? (kusanomido.com)
能と狂言 ⇒ 能の装束と面 ⇒ 面・怨霊 (material.miyazaki-c.ed.jp)

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