Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young woman who died. She went on a murderous rampage and she forever haunts the place of Yotsuya. The end.

A common enough beginning. Might even be a common enough ending. This is one of Japan’s most well known ghost stories there is. It is based on the legends of the Onryō (怨霊), meaning vengeful spirit. And as the passing of time, as in all the myths and legends, there will always be the debate about were the legend came from.

Read more about the Onryō 

Onryo English: Yūrei ゆふれい from Bakemono no e (化物之繪, c. 1700), Harry F. Bruning Collection of Japanese Books and Manuscripts, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Date circa 1700 Source https://archive.org/details/bakemonozukushie00 Author Brigham Young University

Onryō – the Vengeful Japanese Spirit

In many cultures, ghosts are put in different categories. Such is the case with Onryō (怨霊 onryō,) It basically means “vengeful spirit” or “wrathful spirit” in Japanese and is a mythological spirit of vengeance from Japanese folklore. They also have ghosts, called yurei, but these differ in the will of the ghost. As opposed to the yurei, these ghosts doesn’t just get over their revenge thoughts.

It is canonized in the kabuki play called Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談) from 1825. The title basically means the ghost of Yotsuya. In this play, the story and the legend, really took hold, and never let go. It is arguably the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time.

The ghost of Oiwa manifesting herself as a lantern obake. From the series One Hundred Tales (Hyaku monogatari). From the classic ghost story Yotsuya kaidan. Print by Katsushika Hokusai. 1830
The ghost of Oiwa manifesting herself as a lantern obake. From the series One Hundred Tales (Hyaku monogatari). From the classic ghost story Yotsuya kaidan. Print by Katsushika Hokusai. 1830

The Story

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, ''The Yotsuya Ghost Story'', 1892. From the ''Thirty-six Ghosts'' series. The print depicts the beautiful Oiwa resting, arm around her son.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, ”The Yotsuya Ghost Story”, 1892. From the ”Thirty-six Ghosts” series. The print depicts the beautiful Oiwa resting, arm around her son.

She was said to be a loving and devoted wife that risked everything for her husband, Tamiya lemon. They married in secret, without her father’s consent. Tamiya lemon was a wandering samurai, a poor ronin.

Oiwa’s father whoever, was not as pleased with her marrying this man without honor and no money. When he found out the ronin’s misdeeds, he confronted him. And he was killed for it when he threatened to make them stay apart from each other, and he did not bless their marriage.

After his death, Oiwa mourned her father. Lemon comforted Oiwa, claiming they would find her father’s killer.

To earn money he had to take up work as an umbrella maker to care for his pregnant wife. The old samurai grew bored, turned resentful towards his wife, Oiwa. A woman he once loved. At the end, there was no love left.

They had a neighbor. This neighbor had a granddaughter that loved lemon. He wanted them to get married. They were wealthy neighbors, and lemon wanted to be that as well. So they planned it together.


Unbeknownst to Oiwa, he poisoned her. But the poison didn’t kill her. It only left her disfigured. She died however after finding out her own husband’s intentions. Also, her servant, Kobote Kohei was killed as well for assisting her.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, ''The Ghost in the Lantern'', 1852.  The print depicts a Kamiya Iantern haunted by the ghost of O-Iwa
Kuniyoshi Utagawa, ”The Ghost in the Lantern”, 1852. The print depicts a Kamiya Iantern haunted by the ghost of O-Iwa

Lemon threw them both in the river to rot and went on to plan the wedding to the neighbors granddaughter.

That night, the night before his wedding, he had terrible night terrors, and he saw his dead. In a burning paper lantern she comes out, frightening him.

But not enough, he still goes on with the wedding the next day. When he lifted the veil of his bride though, it was Oiwa’s disfigured face staring back at him. He beheaded her, and therefore, his bride as well. He was also tricked by Kohei’s ghost and he killed his father in law in the process.

He was then pursued by Oiwa’s ghost, not wanting him to escape. She was turned into a vengeful ghost, pursuing him into madness, making him suffer. He dies in the end, after suffering horrible. It changes in the different adaptions how he dies. Sometimes he is killed by Oiwa’s brother, or brother in law. Sometimes it’s the haunting of Oiwa that drives him out of his mind and into death. Sometimes it’s Oiwa herself, that pulls him down from the height with her. Either way. Her revenge is complete.


Fact or fiction

So what is this? Is it just from the imagination to Nanboku when he wrote the play? In most blogs it is said the legend created the play. But was it actually the play that created the legend? Yes, it is based on the terrifying vengeful ghost, something older than the kabuki play. But were did Nanboku really get his story from?

According to some sources it was based of an actual murder of the wife of a samurai that went insane after her husband got another woman pregnant. She wandered off, never to be seen again.

Oiwa coming out from the lantern
Oiwa coming out from the lantern

It is also claimed that Nanboku made it up from to separate murders. One of two servants who had murdered their masters. They were caught and executed on the same day. The second murder was a samurai that nailed his wife and her lover to a wooden board and threw them into the Kanda River for being faithless.

It has adapted for film over 30 times, and continues to be an influence on Japanese horror today.

We can find an Oiwa Tamiya in the real life. Living in the 17th century, she was born into a powerful family, but she and her husband had financial difficulties. She came over two very large rocks she put in her garden. She prayed to these rocks, for good luck and prosperity. And over time, this came to the family and everyone believed it was the magic rocks. The roks became famous, and called, Oiwa Inari or Yotsuya Inary. In the end, a shrine was built for it, and this is the shrine people flock to pray to.

But does she still echo through the movies, plays, paintings and music that has been made of her? It is said her body is buried at Myogo-ji temple in Sugamo, Tokyo. Her death is listed in February 22. 1636. After the play started, there have been reports of accidents, injuries and deaths around the production of the play or even TV or movie adaptions of the story.

It is said to be a curse over it all. And very much like the Macbeth curse, the people involved, still honors it. Before retelling the story there is a tradition to go to her grave, to ask her permission, asking for her blessing to tell her story again. So… will you?


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