The blinking paper lantern hides a vengeful ghost in one of the most famous Japanese ghost stories. From a local legend about a real woman to the stage, the myth of the ghost of Oiwa continues to inspire horror.

Many of the more well known stories of ghost and horror from Japan is about the Onryō, meaning a vengeful spirit. A ghost so full of regret and rage, they are posing a threat to living humans. And sometimes, they can come in the form as a Japanese lantern as a ghost. This is the case of the ghost of Oiwa.

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 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.

There are many movies, books and popular culture that feeds on the old legend of the vengeful spirit. Today in modern time we have The Ring and The Grudge series that makes use of this old legend, and in many instances, they are both also inspired by the most iconic Onryō throughout time, the ghost of Oiwa.

The ghost of Oiwa is a vengeful spirit that we first learned of through the kabuki play called Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談) or Ghost Story of Yotsuya from 1825. It was written by the writer Tsuruya Namboku IV, known for his plays with supernatural themes and macabre and grotesque characters. She is an easy recognisable character with her droopy eye and hair falling out. She is also often seen as a Japanese ghost lantern in art.

Kabuki Theatre

The Kabuki theatre is a traditional Japanese style plays originating in the Edo period. It is well known for its characteristics wigs, costumes, makeup and masks. It is exclusively theatre troops of men playing all roles. The distinct styled stage performances is the origin of many iconic looks in modern pop culture, like the distinct style of the Onryō with the white dress, white makeup and long black hair.

It is not the first and original written account of the legend, but certainly the most famous one. The first written manuscript about the ghost of Oiwa is dated to 1727 called Yotsuya zōtan 四谷雑談. It was an underground publication, most likely of the scandalous rumour of the true rumours of a noble family and lady that acted as an Onryō after her death.

It tells the story of Oiwa and Tamiya Lemon and in this play it tells the story of a woman scorned by her man and coming back from the dead for revenge. Throughout the years, there have been many adaptation and versions of the story. It 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.

Read about the Nihon san dai kaidan—Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories:

Botan Dōrō – Tales of the Peony Lantern

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.

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Banchō Sarayashiki — the Ghost of Okiku

The tale of Banchō Sarayashiki (番町皿屋敷, The Dish Mansion at Banchō) is a well known Japanese ghost story (kaidan). It was popularized in the kabuki theater tradition, and lives on in popular culture and folklore alike.

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The ghost of Oiwa — The Vengeful Spirit

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, ''The Yotsuya Ghost Story'', 1892. From the ''Thirty-six Ghosts'' series. The print depicts the beautiful Oiwa resting, arm around her son.
The ghost story of the Japanese lantern ghost, Oiwa, is one of Japan's most well known ghost stories and tells of the vengeful ghost revenge.
The ghost of Oiwa
From the ”Thirty-six Ghosts” series. The print depicts the beautiful Oiwa resting, arm around her son.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, ”The Yotsuya Ghost Story”, 1892.

The story starts out as a classical romantic tale. Oiwa 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 rōnin and not suited to marry his daughter according to the father.

Oiwa’s father whoever, was not as pleased with her marrying this man without honor and no money. When he found out the rōnin’s misdeeds, he confronted him. After a heated argument, the father was killed by the son in law 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 doing the tedious work and turned resentful towards his wife, Oiwa. A woman he once loved and done horrible things to stay with. But in the end, there was no love left.

Next door they had a neighbor with a granddaughter that loved Lemon. The neighbor himself wanted his granddaughter and Lemon to get married. They were wealthy neighbors, and Lemon wanted to be that as well. So they planned how to get rid of Oiwa together.

Unbeknownst to Oiwa they sent her either an ointment or face cream laced with poison. But the poison didn’t kill her and only left her disfigured with one eye drooping and her hair falling off as she tried to brush through it, making Lemon so disgusted by her, he came up with a plan to rid himself of her. He hired one of his friends to rape her so that he would have grounds for a divorce.

His friend however is unable to go through with the plan and shows her a mirror instead. When she sees herself she understands what has happen and how she has been deceived. She takes a sword and accidently kills herself with it, and on her last breath, she curses Lemons name. In some versions there is actually Lemon that kills her.

Lemon threw her 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 wife manifesting. In a burning paper lantern she comes out as a ghost, frightening him as a warning of the hauntings that are about to come.

The Chōchin obake

In Japanese legends, they have this concept of Tsukumogami (付喪神, “Kami of tool). This is the belief that inanimate objects, when they ‘serve’ their owners for a hundred years, they are granted life and a soul. When the Japanese lantern, or Chōchin reaches this age, it can become Chōchin obake, a Japanese lantern ghost, a mostly harmless ghost that laughs and lightly scares humans. But they could also be inhabited by a powerful onryō.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, ''The Ghost in the Lantern'', 1852.  The print depicts a Kamiya Iantern haunted by the ghost of O-Iwa.
The ghost story of the Japanese lantern ghost, Oiwa, is one of Japan's most well known ghost stories and tells of the vengeful ghost revenge.
The Lantern: The print depicts a Kamiya Iantern haunted by the ghost of Oiwa
Kuniyoshi Utagawa, ”The Ghost in the Lantern”, 1852.

But he is not frightened enough as he still goes on with the wedding the next day. When he lifted the veil of his bride though, it was the ghost of Oiwas disfigured face staring back at him. He beheaded her, and therefore, his new bride as well. There is all in all a lot of killing going on.

He was then pursued by the ghost of Oiwa, 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 adaptations how he dies though. Sometimes he is killed by Oiwa’s brother, or brother in law and in other versions it’s the haunting of the ghost 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.


The Deaths Behind The Play

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 story of the Japanese lantern ghost, Oiwa, is one of Japan's most well known ghost stories and tells of the vengeful ghost revenge.
Oiwa as the lantern: The ghost of Oiwa manifesting herself as a Japanese lantern ghost. From the series One Hundred Tales (Hyaku monogatari).
Print by Katsushika Hokusai. 1830

The success of the play was so big that they had to reschedule more performances to meet the demands. It was mostly believed that the popularity of the play was because it tapped into the zeitgeist of the society at the time. The theme of repressed women was something that reflected the Bunsei era that was also a time of great unrest. And the story of the victim taking her revenge of her oppressor was something the audience revelled in.

But where did the story come from? Was 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.

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.

In any case what source the play was created from, the play itself became something that created more legend. It has adapted for film over 30 times, and continues to be an influence on Japanese horror today.

The Shrine of Oiwa

But who was the real Oiwa behind the manuscript? Both the play and the written account from 1727? 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 rocks 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.

Even the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education found it necessary to distinguish the real life Oiwa and the play:

Tamiya Inari Shrine, commonly known as Oiwa Inari, used to be i the premises of Tamiya family of Osakitegumi doshin (military officer in the Edo period).
An old story is passed down that Oiwa (died in 1636), a daughter of Tamiya Matazaemon, worshipped at the shrine and restored her family with Lemon, her husband. Therefore, the shrine was gradually worshipped as ‘Oiwa Inari* by people. There was yet another story to attract further worshippers, the ghost story ‘Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan’, written by Tsuruya Nanbuko and was staged in 1825 and was very popular. However, it was written after 200 years of time when Oiwa and Lemon actually lived. Unlike the famous ghost story, their marriage in reality was enjoyable. After Inari shrine was lost by a fire in 1879, it moved to Shinkawa in Chuo Ward. The present shrine was rebuilt here at Yotsuya in 1952.

— Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education


Although not like in the play, there were rumours about Oiwa being a vengeful ghost, long before the Kabuki actors entered the stage for the first time. Something we can read about in the manuscript from 1727.

A more sinister legend of this lady though is the curse she apparently set on three houses had been disrupted, rumour saying it was the grudge of Tamiya’s wife, Oiwa that killed them. They were both victims of the reforming rule of the eight Tokugawa Shōgun, Yoshimune Kō. In some accounts she disappeared, in others she commited suicide, vowing to revenge those who wronged her. In all she was blamed for the deaths of at least fifteen people.

Already in 1717, there was a shrine erected in her honor, something they sometimes did to appease the wrath of an Onryō. This is a list of some of the shrines that were built to restore her honor and protect from the harmful ghost, or at least connected to the Oiwa legend:

  1. Yotsuya O’Iwa-inari Tamiya Shrine
  2. O’Iwa-inari Yōunji
  3. O’Iwa-inari Tamiya Shrine
  4. Myōkōji
Oiwa coming out from the lantern.
The ghost story of the Japanese lantern ghost, Oiwa, is one of Japan's most well known ghost stories and tells of the vengeful ghost revenge.
The revenge of Oiwa: The ghost of Oiwa coming out from the Japanese lantern as a ghost with her son in her arms.

They say that when visiting her grave, there is a statue of Oiwa inside the main building in some of her shrines, although not accessible to visitors. you can wish upon it as it is said she grants the wishes of her worshippers. This is also the rumours about her grave.

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. This has been blamed on the ghost of Oiwa and her wish for revenge. Therefore it has become a tradition to visit and pay respect for the people involved in a production of it.

I you go straight through the graveyard, there is suppose to be a red torii (a Shinto shrine archway) by a tree. Under the tree, her grave is supposed to be. But according to legend, if you visit the grave just because of curiosity, your right eye will swell up, just like hers did with the poison.

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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