Welcome back, and HAPPY HALLOWEEN to all you ghoul-loving thrill seekers out there! I hope my top ten urban legends didn’t frighten you off, because as promised, I am back with THE most famous ghost story to ever grip Japan. That’s right folks, it’s time to meet…
The story of Oiwa is not only the most famous of Japan’s ghost stories, but it’s also one of the oldest. Based on an actual incident that occurred back in 17th century Edo (present day Tokyo), the tragedy that befell Oiwa went on to become the basis of an incredibly popular kabuki play called Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan, or The Ghost Story of Yotsuya in Tokaido. Written by Tsuruya Nanboku IV in 1825, Yotsuya Kaidan was an instant hit with the working class, establishing itself as one of the “Big Three” ghost stories of Japan, alongside Okiku, and Otsuyu.
According to legend Oiwa, daughter of Yotsuya Samon, was married to a rōnin samurai called Tamiya Iemon. Being a ‘masterless’ samurai, Iemon was not below scamming or stealing money from people, a trait that eventually took its toll on Oiwa’s patience. Fed up with her husband’s misdeeds, Oiwa fled the house to the safety of her parents. Incredulous, Iemon sets out to retrieve her but is intervened by Oiwa’s father. Disappointed in his son-in-law’s dishonest behavior, Samon demands that Iemon divorces her. Enraged by both Oiwa’s actions and the lofty attitude of her father, Iemon lashes out and brutally murders Samon.
True to his dishonest behavior, Iemon informs Oiwa that her father had been slain by bandits and he will only exact revenge if she reconciles with him. In what proves to be the worst decision of her life, Oiwa forgives Iemon and grants him a second chance.
Some time later, Oiwa and Iemon have a son. Unfortunately, due to their abject poverty Oiwa quickly falls ill from the strains of childbirth, becoming quite helpless in the process, thereby causing yet more friction between the tragic couple. At around the same time, a rich doctor by the name of Itō Kihei bought a house next to Iemon’s and moved in with his beautiful granddaughter Oume.
Instantly smitten with the roguish rōnin, Oume fall hopelessly in love but feels that her own beauty pails in comparison to that of Oiwa. Foregoing his medical obligation to help Oiwa, because of his own granddaughter’s lovesick plight, the doctor administers a poisonous substance to Oiwa, claiming it to be facial ointment. Unaware of the toxic properties of the ointment, Oiwa liberally applies it to her face, horribly disfiguring herself in the process. If her sickness wasn’t enough to repulse Iemon, her disfigured face certainly is!
Doctor Kihei, taking full advantage of his insidious actions suggests Iemon divorce Oiwa and marry his granddaughter Oume. With the added sweetener of his estate as inheritance, the masterless samurai gladly accepts. Rōnin or not, Iemon still had his honor to uphold so he devises a treacherous scheme to have his friend, Takuetsu, visit Oiwa one night when he’s away and rape her, thus citing ‘infidelity’ as grounds for divorce.
As you can probably imagine, Iemon’s plan totally and completely backfires…
Sneaking into Oiwa’s home late one night, Takuetsu approaches the unsuspecting, sickly wife, but is immediately frozen the moment he sees her grisly visage. Unaware of the extent of her disfigurement, Takuetsu pulls a mirror from out of his pocket and shows Oiwa her reflection.
Recoiling in shock from what she sees, while simultaneously realizing the purpose for Takuetsu’s unannounced visit, Oiwa falls into insanity. Grabbing her devious husband’s sword, the stricken lady attempts to rush into the night with vengeance consuming her mind.
Quickly realizing Oiwa’s intent, Takuetsu blocks her path, but during the resulting struggle, the tragic Oiwa inadvertently stabs herself through the throat. Collapsing in a bloody heap on the floor, Oiwa fills the night with screams, repeating her despicable husband’s name as her final breath escapes her dying body.
As prime suspect for this gruesome scene, Takuetsu flees and leaves Oiwa’s body to be discovered by Iemon’s servant, Kohei. Seeing relief in his master when delivering the tragic news, Kohei quickly becomes suspicious. Sensing his suspicion, Iemon swiftly murders his servant and nails both his and his dead wife’s lifeless bodies either side of a single door, that is then thrown into a nearby river.
Free from his matrimonial obligations, Iemon proceeds to marry the poor, unsuspecting Oume. After a sumptuous ceremony, the newlyweds take themselves off to the wedding chamber to consummate their union. Falling into bed together, Iemon is suddenly gripped with unimaginable fear. For laying next to the dastardly rōnin, is none other than the twisted form of his recently deceased wife!
Now an Onryō (vengeful spirit), the horrifically disfigured face of Oiwa breaks into an evil grin. Iemon instinctively grabs his sword and hacks away at his dead wife’s ghostly head. Breathing heavily from his labors, the masterless samurai gathers what little courage he has and turns to the spot where his dead wife laid, only to discover the dismembered body of his new wife, Oume. In a fit of abject fear, Iemon rushes to his father-in-law to explain the fate of his daughter. But in place of Kihei, is the floating form of Oiwa, grinning manically as ever as she points her ravaged arm towards the equally disfigured figure of Kohei. Gripping his sword once more, Iemon lunges at his murdered servant only to then discover the lifeless body of Kihei in his place. Driven mad with fear, Iemon flees from the bloody tableaux, never to be seen again.
However, legend has it that Iemon’s nightmare was far from over. Wherever he went, he was plagued by the vengeful spirit of his former wife. In fact, Oiwa’s thirst for revenge was so great, she appeared in the faces of every person Iemon encountered, haunted every place he visited and invaded his dreams night, after night. Even taking refuge in the mountains proved fruitless, as the enraged Onryō continued to torment Iemon to the point of irreversible madness…
Pretty creepy story, huh?!
For me, the tragic tale of Oiwa stands head and shoulders above every other ghost story in Japan, for the simple fact that Oiwa actually existed! The real Oiwa died on February 22nd 1636, inspiring countless retellings of her tragic life, including the aforementioned kabuki production Yotsuya Kaidan, along with over thirty movie adaptations since 1912!
To add weight to this tragic legend, a number of unexplained disasters and deaths have plagued productions of Yotsuya Kaidan over the years. As a result, before any new production or adaptation of Oiwa’s tale begins, the entire cast and crew visit her grave at Myōgyōji temple in Sugamo, Tokyo, to pay their respects.
The story of Oiwa can be viewed as both a ghost story, and a warning to husband’s with infidelity on their minds. Either way, this particularly gruesome episode in Japan’s history gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!”
And with that, I bid you all adieu as I leave you with the terrifying story of Oiwa to play on your minds! It only comes around once a year, but as your resident Yokai Hunter, on behalf of the rest of the SMAC! editorial team, we wish you all a very HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!
Til next time!