The Botan Dōrō or Tales of the Peony Lantern is a ghost story told since the Ming dynasty in China to today. Most popular through the Kaidan theater plays, it is now one of Japan’s most well known ghost stories.
Another dark, yet poetic love story of a ghost. The Botan Dōrō (牡丹燈籠), or, the peony lantern was a story that became popular in Japan during the 17th century in the Edo era.
It was really a Chinese tale called Jiandeng Xinhua (剪燈新話,) or New Tales Under the Lamplight from 1378 by the Chinese writer Qu You. This was a collection of moralic tales and Buddhist lessons on Karma.
Japan was at the time almost entirely closed off as a country and got little to no input from the outside world. The Japanese adapted it as their own with the writer Asai Ryoi and the demand for Kaidan stories, ghost stories, especially for the parlour game Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.
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The story of Botan Dōrō is set during Obon, a three day festival of the dead in the late summer in Nezu district in Tokyo. Kaidan (ghost stories) was immensely popular during this era, especially during Obon.
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Botan Dōrō is considered to be one of Nihon san dai kaidan — Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories. It is arguably the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time and has spurned a couple of local legends of its own. The other two famous Kaidan’s is: Banchō Sarayashiki — the Ghost of Okiku and The Myth of Oiwa — The Paper Lantern Ghost.
The Story of the Botan Dōrō
A long time ago in the Nezu district of Tokyo, the first night of Obon was upon them. This is when the spirits are welcomed back into our world and guided home after three days. A man named Ogiwara was out walking. In some versions he is a young student with his whole life in front of him while in others, he is an elder widowed samurai that carries a lot of regret and grief.
On the first day of Obon he noticed a beautiful woman with a maid carrying a peony lantern by his house and they started talking.
Her name was Otsuyu and charmed her way into Ogiwara’s heart. Over the festival the two fell more and more in love in the light by the lantern. And every night she came back to him.
A neighbor however was growing worried for the young man after having seen them meet the first day. That very night he visited the boy, peeping through the window to make sure of his suspicion. There he saw the man in the arms, not of a young and beautiful woman, but a skeleton.
Almost fainting of shook, the nosy neighbour got on his way, running to get a Buddhist priest to get help for the man. When the buddhist priest and the neighbor came the following day, they told the man about this and decided to throw a protective spell over the house. Not really believing until he saw it with his own eyes, he waited to the following night to see for himself.
When Otsuyu together with her servant came to the door she was unable to pass the protection charms the buddhist priest had put up. When she understood what was happening she was crying, banging on the door, and the man understood that it was all true. She was indeed dead and he had fallen in love with a ghost. She reminded him again and again for their love for each other, not leaving the house.
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The man’s health grew worse and worse during the day and he only felt sorrow and a longing for the thing they had together, even though he knew about her. One night he couldn’t resist his longing anymore. He lifted the protection charm on the last day of Obon and let them in.
When the neighbor once again came to check on him, there was not only one dead person in the room, but two. His soul taken away at the end of the Obon festival as the spirits were supposed to, back to the spirit world.
Is Botan Dōrō Another Haunted Play?
Later the story has gotten many variations, on stage as well as on the screen. The story changes with the times from the closed off Edo period to the opening of western influence of the Meiji period up until modern times.
Read More: Check out all of our ghost stories from Japan
The English translation was done by Lafcadio Hearn in 1899 for his book: In Ghostly Japan. He titled his adaptation A Passional Karma, and based it on the kabuki version of the story. Read the full one Here
But just as in the Kaidan theater play of Yotsuya Kaidan, there is said to be a curse on the ones playing the parts of the ghosts. This is from an events in 1919 when the play was set up in the Imperial Theater. The actresses playing Otsuyu and her maid both became sick and died within a week of each other. They were some of the more promising actresses in Tokyo at the time, and their death were sudden and gave rise to many rumours.
It was said that before they died they had been seen nightly with pale-face and their hair worn long and dishevelled. The actress playing the maid held the lantern in hand, moving behind the willow tree following the other one.
So who is to say? Can a made up story turn into something cursed? Or was it something else than a good story that made it linger in the cultural minds of the Japanese as a ghost?
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