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The Vengeful Onryō and Japanese Society

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Do you have a fear of ghosts? Something you can’t see or touch, keeping you up the night?

While ghosts are depicted as creepy, scary beings in many western cultures, they are revered in Japanese culture and folklore, where they are known as Yūrei.

There are two realms in Japan: the world of the living (also known as kono-yo), and the world of the dead (or ano-yo), where ghosts and spirits reside. According to the traditional Japanese religion Shintoism, when an individual dies, their spirit moves from the world of the living to the dead, while continuing to watch over their living relatives. This has meant that in Japan there is a great respect for the dead, so “proper funeral rites must take place to honour their deceased loved ones.”

However, if someone dies violently or unexpectedly, they may become an Onryō, the most dreaded and feared group of Yūrei capable of physically affecting the living and killing or injuring enemies. In folklore and modern depictions, Onryō are generally women who are wronged or victimised by men throughout their lives, returning for revenge. 

This trend can be traced to traditional Japanese values, the role of women in society as submissive, and the societal fear of women being independent and ambitious. With the vengeful ghost, women can gain power and express the rage and aggression that they are denied in life, a “symbol of female power unleashed.” Sadly, it is only after death that these feminine Onryō typically challenge the traditional gender hierarchy of Japan.

This concept comes from the Freudian theory of the Repressed, where our conscious mind represses unpleasant thoughts in our unconscious mind which later surface in a distorted or symbolic way. The antagonist of Japanese horror films often portrays a “return of the oppressed … in a more malevolent form,” like the Onryō. The suppressed urges and role as submissive obedient creatures result in the violent urges of feminine Onryō after death. 

Women only display the values of independency and power when combined with monstrosity and the grotesque as they become a “deformed revenant that no longer belonged to human society”. This could imply that depicting women as grotesque and hideous creatures is a cultural metaphor, “emblematic of larger cultural systems” (like that of Japan) “that predispose women toward madness and monstrosity.” The majority of earlier Japanese ghost stories were also documented by men, speaking volumes about Japanese society’s fear of empowered women.

The popularity and stereotype of vengeful Japanese Yūrei and Onryō rose during the Edo period of Japan, around the 17th to 19th century. One of the most famous Japanese ghost stories, which came from this period, is the ghost Oiwa from Tsuruya Nanboku’s kabuki play Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan, or “Ghost Story of Yotsuya” in 1825.

The concept of repressed desires and the eventual deformity of Oiwa as an Onryō can be observed in this play. Lady Oiwa was weak and frail after giving birth and unable to fully fulfill her role as a dutiful wife to her samurai husband Iemon and assist with the household. In this we can see Oiwa exemplifies women’s submissiveness in this time period. However, her failure as a wife led to her father approaching Iemon to dissolve the marriage.

Oiwa is later poisoned with facial cream by Oume, a woman who longed to be with Iemon. Because of Oiwa’s facial disfigurement from the poison, Iemon sought to undo their marriage trying to have Oiwa raped by his friend Takuetsu. She was not, but to avoid seeing herself in a mirror that Takuetsu was holding up to her, she accidentally cut her throat and died as a result.

Female jealousy is frequently highlighted when discussing the story of Oiwa, as she returns as an Onryō to haunt Iemon, causing him to go mad and murder his new wife Oume and her grandfather, before succumbing to his own death. 

The illustration of Oiwa as an Onryō follows the trend of female Onryō being associated with the monstrous and grotesque, since she is described as emerging from lanterns with long mattered hair and her face still disfigured. The story of Oiwa addresses how women can only express their true thoughts and aggression after death, in contrast to their submissive role in Japan’s conventional family structure.

Kuchisake-onna or the slit-mouthed woman is a particularly malevolent and grotesque Japanese Onryō from folklore and urban legends. In many interpretations, Kuchisake-onna’s slit-mouth is believed to have been cut while she was still alive before she became an Onryō, much like Oiwa’s facial disfigurement. As a result of their ugliness, these Japanese women became outcasts and monstrous, as mentioned earlier, “no longer belonging to human society.” Their monstrous figure and repressed emotions led them to become part of the vengeful Onryō archetype.

The legend of Kuchisake-onna often follows this conversation with her victims, most often resulting in death or a slit mouth. While the folktale originates from the Japanese Edo period, many modern depictions like the 2007 film ‘Carved: The Slit Mouthed Woman’ illustrates the grotesque look of Kuchisake-onna’s face very vividly.

Much like Oiwa and Kuchisake-onna, Sadako Yamura in the Japanese 1998 film Ringu also portrays an Onryō of grotesque nature, with mattered hair and an unkempt appearance, who has returned to kill and exact revenge.

So, are you more scared of ghosts now after listening to the horror and legends of Japanese Onryō?

Hopefully you can look past that and understand the patriarchal elements and stereotypes of Japanese culture that led to the birth and popularity of the female vengeful Onryō.

ghost stories are often protofeminist tales of women who, if only in death, subvert the assumptions and traditions of women as dutiful wives and mothers, worshipful girlfriends, or obedient children by unleashing a lifetime’s worth of rage and retribution.” This is something that can be seen in the previous discussed folktales and films, paired with the illustration of female Onryō as grotesque horrific creatures, further othering them from traditional Japanese society and their values.

Thanks for listening!


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