An online magazine about the paranormal, haunted and macabre. We collect the ghost stories from all around the world as well as review horror and gothic media.
The Myth of Oiwa — The Paper Lantern Ghost
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.
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 Paper Lantern Ghost. This is the case of the ghost of Oiwa.
Read more about the Onryō
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…
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.
Yotsuya Kaidan — The Tale of Oiwa and Tamiya Iemon
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 on stage with her droopy eye and hair falling out or as the iconic Paper Lantern Ghost. She is also often seen as a Japanese ghost lantern in art.
Read Also: Check out all of the ghost stories from Japan
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.
Yotsuya Kaidan 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.
Yotsuya Kaidan tells the story of Oiwa and Tamiya Iemon 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 and it was a popular story to tell as a part of a samurai parlor game.
Read Also: Games to Play in the Dark – including Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai
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.
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.
The Ghost of Oiwa — The Vengeful Spirit
Yotsuya Kaidan starts out as a classical romantic tale. Oiwa was said to be a loving and devoted wife that risked everything for her husband, Tamiya Iemon. They married in secret, without her father’s consent. Tamiya Iemon 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. Iemon 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 Iemon. The neighbor himself wanted his granddaughter and Iemon to get married. They were wealthy neighbors, and Iemon 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 Iemon 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 Iemons name. In some versions there is actually Iemon that kills her.
Iemon 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.
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 of Yotsuya Kaidan 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 of the Paper Lantern Ghost
The success of the Yotsuya Kaidan 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 Nanboku’s play 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 from her home, never to be seen again.
It is also claimed that Nanboku based his play from to separate murders. One of the murders was that of two servants who had murdered their masters. They were caught and executed on the same day. The second murder that inspired the play 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 Real Oiwa and her Rocks
But who was the real Oiwa behind the manuscript? Both the play and the written account from 1727 from the underground publication that claimed a dead wife had turned into an onryo. Wether this account really refers to this Oiwa, is a bit uncertaint though.
We can find an Oiwa Tamiya in the real life that had something mysterious happening to her. Living in the 17th century, she was born into a powerful family, but she and her husband had financial difficulties.
One day Oiwa came over two very large rocks she felt was something special and put them both in her garden. She prayed to these rocks for good luck and prosperity for her family to overcome their financial difficulties.
And over time, the things she prayed for to the rocks really happened for the family and everyone believed it was because of the magic rocks that she had prayed to. The rocks became famous, and was 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 and they have put this message:
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 Iemon, 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 Iemon 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 that also hinted to this fate for her.
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.
The Shrine in Oiwa’s Honor
Already in 1717, there was a shrine erected in her honor, something they sometimes did to appease the wrath of an Onryō, long before the publication that were written ten years after. 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:
- Yotsuya O’Iwa-inari Tamiya Shrine 四谷於岩稲荷田宮神社 新宿区左門町
- O’Iwa-inari Yōunji 於岩稲荷陽雲寺 新宿区左門町
- O’Iwa-inari Tamiya Shrine 於岩稲荷田宮神社 中央区荒川
- Myōkōji 妙行寺 豊島区西巣鴨
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.
The Curse of Oiwa’s Grave and The Curse on the Play
It is said her body is buried at Myogo-ji temple in Sugamo, Tokyo. Her death is listed in February 22. 1636 and the grave has been rumoured to have been haunted for ages.
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 Yotsuya Kaidan just to be safe.
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 don’t run off to check it out just because you are curious and nothing more. 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 in productions of the legend of Yotsuya Kaidan, 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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the husband’s name is IEMON, not LEMON! Please correct this
It sure is! Thanks for noticing and telling, all corrected now😎
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10 Horrifying Demons and Spirits from Japanese Folklore
By victoria derosa | oct 29, 2014 | updated: mar 23, 2023, 3:28 pm edt.
Oni (demons) and yūrei (ghosts) have played a role in Japanese culture for thousands of years, and stories of new spirits continue to be told today. Much of this list is comprised of hannya , which in Noh theater are women whose rage and jealousy turned them into oni while still alive. Here are just a few more tales from Japanese folklore of demons, ghosts, and other spirits you don’t want to mess with.
Kiyohime was a young woman scorned by her lover , a monk named Anchin, who grew cold and lost interest in her. Realizing he had left her, Kiyohime followed him to a river and transformed into a serpent while swimming after his boat. Terrified by her monstrous form, Anchin sought refuge in a temple, where monks hid him beneath a bell. Not to be evaded, Kiyohime found him by his scent, coiled around the bell, and banged loudly on it with her tail. She then breathed fire onto the bell, melting it and killing Anchin.
There are many variations of this popular tale . Her name is a portmanteau of the Japanese yuki (meaning “snow”) and onna for woman, and she is also known as the “Snow Woman.” She is usually described as having white skin, a white kimono, and long black hair, and appears during snowfall and glides without feet over the snow like a ghost. She feeds on human essence, and her killing method of choice is to blow on her victims to freeze them to death and then suck out their souls through their mouths.
Considered one of the most distinctive oni in Japanese folklore, Shuten-dōji is described as more than 50 feet tall with a red body, five-horned head, and 15 eyes. There’s no need to fear this demon, though. In a legend from the medieval period , warriors Minamoto no Raikō and Fujiwara no Hōshō infiltrated Shuten-dōji’s lair disguised as yamabushi (mountain priests) to free some kidnapped women. The oni greeted them with a banquet of human flesh and blood, and the disguised warriors offered Shuten-dōji drugged saké . After the demon passed out, the warriors cut off his head, killed the other oni , and freed the prisoners.
Also originating in the medieval period are the yamauba, which are similar to the yōkai (which can be used to refer to a whole class of supernatural beings from Japanese folklore). The yamauba are generally considered to be old women who were marginalized by society and forced to live in the mountains, and who also have a penchant for eating human flesh . Among many tales, there is one of a yamauba who offers shelter to a young woman about to give birth while secretly planning to eat her baby, and another of a yamauba who goes to village homes to eat children while their mothers are away. But they’re not picky; they’ll eat anyone who passes by. The yamabua also have mouths under their hair . Delightful!
In another tale of a woman scorned, Hashihime (also known as the Maiden of the Bridge ) prayed to a deity to turn her into an oni so she could kill her husband, the woman he fell in love with, and all of their relatives. To accomplish this, she bathed in the Uji River for 21 days, divided her hair into five horns, painted her body red with vermilion, and went on a legendary killing spree. Besides her intended victims, anyone who saw her instantly died of fear.
In Japanese folklore, the tengu (which translates to “heavenly dogs”) are essentially impish mountain goblins that play tricks on people. Featured in countless folktales , they were considered purely evil until about the 14th century. They were originally depicted as birdlike, with wings and beaks, though now the beak is often replaced with a comically large nose. They are known to lead people away from Buddhism, tie priests to tall trees and towers, start fires in temples, and kidnap children. Many legends say the tengu were hypocritical priests who must now live the rest of their lives as mountain goblins as punishment. Locals made offerings to the tengu to avoid their mischief, and there are still festivals in Japan dedicated to them today.
In a revenge story made popular by the famous kabuki drama Yotsuya Kaidan , Oiwa was married to a rōnin (a masterless, wandering samurai) named Iemon; he wanted to marry a rich local’s granddaughter who had fallen in love with him, and, in order to end their marriage, Oiwa was sent a poisoned cream. Though the poison failed to kill her, she became horribly disfigured, causing her hair to fall out and her left eye to droop. Upon learning of her disfigurement and betrayal, she accidentally killed herself on a sword. Her ghostly, deformed face appeared everywhere to haunt Iemon. It even appeared in place of his new bride’s face, which caused Iemon to accidentally behead her. Oiwa’s spirit followed him relentlessly to the point where he welcomed death.
8. Demon at Agi Bridge
This story, which was originally a setsuwa (a spoken-word narrative), begins as so many horror stories do: With an overly-confident man who boasted to his friends that he didn’t fear to cross Agi Bridge or the demon rumored to reside there. As oni are known for their ability to shape-shift, the demon at Agi Bridge appeared to the man as an abandoned woman. As soon as she caught the young man’s eye, she transformed back into a 9-foot-tall, green-skinned monster and chased after him. Unable to catch the man, the demon later changed into the form of the man’s brother and knocked on his door late at night. The demon was let into the house and, after a struggle, bit off the man’s head, held it up and danced with it before his family, and then vanished.
In an urban legend from 1978 that swept through Japan, Kuchisake-onna wears a surgical mask and asks children if they think she is beautiful. If they say yes, she takes off the mask to reveal her mouth slit from ear to ear, which also gave rise to her nickname, the Slit-Mouthed Woman (the name Kuchisake-onna also comes from the Japanese kuchi , meaning “mouth,” onna for “woman,” and sake , suggesting to rip or tear something). Once the kids see her face, she asks them if she is beautiful again. The only way to escape is to give a noncommittal answer, such as "You look OK." Barring that, you can distract her with certain Japanese candies . But if the children say yes again, she will cut their mouths to make them look like her.
10. Aka Manto
With a demon for just about everything, why shouldn’t the Japanese have a few for their bathrooms ? Aka Manto, one of the more popular demons, hides in women’s bathrooms. In one version of the story, Aka Manto asks women if they would like a red cape or a blue cape (or conversely, if they’d like red paper or blue paper as they’re going to wipe). If the woman answers “red,” this yōkai is believed to tear the flesh from her back to make it appear she is wearing a red cloak. If she answers “blue,” then the creature strangles her to death.
Unfortunately, if you encounter it, there may be no escaping: Some versions of the story say if you don’t answer or if you pick a different color, he will immediately drag you to hell. However, others suggest you can skip all of it if you just turn down Aka Manto’s offer to start with.
A version of this article was originally published in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.