Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談), the story of Oiwa and Tamiya Iemon, is a tale of betrayal, murder, and ghostly revenge. Arguably the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, it has been adapted for film over 30 times, and continues to be an influence on Japanese horror today.
TRANSLATION: a girls’ name meaning “rock”
APPEARANCE: Oiwa is the tragic and terrifying onryō from Yotsuya kaidan—”the ghost story of Yotsuya.” Along with Okiku and Otsuyu, she is one of the Nihon san dai kaidan—Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories. Oiwa’s story is based on real-life events which took place in 17th century Edo. These events were dramatized in the 1825 kabuki play Tōkaidō yotsuya kaidan, which became very popular and cemented Oiwa’s place as Japan’s most famous ghost. Countless variations and adaptations of her tale followed.
The real Oiwa died in 1636. It is rumored that her onryō still haunts the places she lived as well as those who perform her story. Mysterious disasters and deaths occurring around a number of productions (including theater, film, and television adaptations) have been blamed on the curse of Oiwa’s ghost. There have been numerous attempts to appease her angry spirit. A small shrine and a temple dedicated to Oiwa were erected on the ruins of her family’s house in Yotsuya. After a fire destroyed the shrine in 1879, Oiwa’s shrine was moved to another part of Tōkyo. The shrine was again destroyed in the firebombings of World War 2. After the war, her new shrine as well as the original location in Yotsuya were both rebuilt. A gravestone at Myōgyōji in Sugamo, Tokyo is widely believed to be Oiwa’s actual grave. It is customary for actors and crews putting on a production of Yotsuya kaidan to visit Oiwa’s grave to pay their respects.
LEGENDS: Oiwa was married to samurai named Iemon. It was not a happy marriage, for Iemon was a wasteful man and a thief. One day, Oiwa decided to leave her husband and return to her family home. Iemon followed after her, but was stopped by Oiwa’s father, Yotsuya Samon. Samon knew of Iemon’s misdeeds—that he had stolen money from his employer—and he demanded that Iemon divorce Oiwa. Iemon drew his sword and murdered Samon. Iemon returned to Oiwa and lied that a stranger had killed her father on the road. He begged her to reconcile, and he promised to avenge her father’s murder.
Some time after that, Oiwa became pregnant and bore Iemon a son. Times were hard. They had little money. Oiwa became sickly after giving birth, and Iemon grew resentful of Oiwa. Next to their home lived a rich doctor named Itō Kihei. He had a beautiful granddaughter named Oume. Oume was instantly attracted to Iemon, and wanted to marry him. The doctor loved his granddaughter and conspired to help her marry Iemon. He prescribed an ointment for Oiwa to help her recover from her sickness. In reality, it was a poison which horribly disfigured her face. Seeing Oiwa’s scarred face, Iemon’s resentment turned into hatred. Afterwards, Kihei suggested that Iemon divorce Oiwa and marry his granddaughter instead; if he were to marry Oume, all of the wealth of the Itō family could be his to inherit!. Iemon was so disgusted by Oiwa’s face, and Oume was so young and attractive, that he agreed. Iemon began pawning Oiwa’s possessions, her kimono, her clothes—even their son’s clothes—to have enough money to marry Oume. Because he needed a legitimate reason to divorce his wife, Iemon hired his friend Takuetsu to rape Oiwa so that he could accuse her of infidelity.
On a prearranged night, when Iemon was out of the house, Takuetsu entered and approached Oiwa. Upon seeing her face, he was so frightened that he abandoned his orders. Takuetsu explained Iemon’s plan to Oiwa, and then showed her a mirror. Oiwa had not known what the ointment had done to her face. When she saw her reflection, she was horrified. She tried to cover the disfigurement by brushing her hair over it, but when she touched her hair, it fell out in large, bloody clumps. Oiwa went mad. She grabbed a nearby sword and punctured her own throat. As Oiwa lay on the floor bleeding to death, she repeatedly cursed Iemon’s name until she could breathe no more.
Oiwas’ body was discovered by Iemon’s servant Kohei. When Kohei delivered the news to Iemon, instead of become upset, Iemon was overjoyed. Kohei became suspicious of Iemon, but before he could do anything, Iemon murdered Kohei. He nailed Kohei’s and Oiwa’s bodies to a door, and disposed of them in a river. Afterwards, he made up a lie that Kohei and Oiwa had been sleeping together. He was finally free to marry Oume.
Oiwa’s curse did not wait long to take effect. On his wedding night to Oume, Iyemon had trouble sleeping. He rolled over in bed and saw, right next to his face, the horrible, disfigured face of Oiwa’s ghost! He grabbed his sword and slashed out at the ghost. Just then, the illusion ended, and Iemon saw that it was not Oiwa he had cut, but Oume. His new bride lay dead on the floor. Terrified, Iemon ran next door to seek his new father in law’s help. However, when he got to the Itō house, he was confronted by the ghost of the murdered Kohei. Once again Iemon slashed with his sword, but no sooner had he done so than the illusion ended and he saw Itō Kihei’s slain body lying on the floor.
Afterwards, Iemon fled into the night, but Oiwa’s onryō pursued him. Everywhere he went, Oiwa’s ghost was there. Her ruined face haunted his dreams. Her terrible voice cried out to him for vengeance. She even appeared to him in the paper lanterns that lit his way. Eventually, Iemon ran into the mountains, where he hid in an isolated cabin. But Oiwa followed him there too. Haunted by Oiwa’s ghost, no longer able to tell nightmare from reality, Iemon descended into madness.
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