the online database of Japanese folklore

Hone onna


Translation: bone woman
Habitat: dark streets, alleys, graveyards
Diet: none; though has a large sexual appetite

Appearance: Not all who die turn into vengeful beings of grudge and jealousy. Hone onna retain an undying love that persists long after their flesh has rotted away. This allows them to continue to be with the object of their affection despite having died. These ghosts appear as they did in life—young, beautiful women in their prime. Only those unclouded by love or with strong religious faith are able to penetrate their disguise and see their true form: a rotting, fetid, skeletal corpse returned from the grave.

Interactions: At night, a hone onna rises from the grave and wanders to the house of her former lover. Her appearance shocks those who believed her to be dead. This shock quickly turns into a joy that blinds the hone onna’s lover to any clues that something might be wrong. Even the hone onna herself may not know of her condition. She is driven only by love. She exists as a ghost only to continue the love she had in life. The hone onna spends the night and leaves in the morning. This unholy coupling can continue for days, or even weeks, without being noticed. However, there is a price to be paid. Each night she drains some of her lover’s life force, and he grows ever sicker and weaker. Without intervention, he will eventually die, joining his lover forever in death’s embrace.

In most cases, a friend or a servant of her lover will see through the hone onna’s illusion and alert someone to her true identity. Though her human lover may be repulsed by her when the truth is revealed to him, the ghost may not realizes her condition and continue to visit every night. A home can be warded with prayers and magic charms against entry by ghosts, but they only work as long as the master of the house wills them to. As the hone onna’s body decays further, her enchanting allure only increases. Eventually most men succumb and let her into their homes one last time, sacrificing their own lives to the ghost of the woman they loved.

Legends: Perhaps the most famous hone onna is Otsuyu from Botan dōrō, or The Tale of the Peony Lantern. Botan dōrō was introduced to Japan in the 17th century from an old Chinese ghost story. Over the centuries, it has been adapted into puppet shows, kabuki plays, rakugo, and films, and remains an influential ghost story today.

Alphabetical list of yōkai