Crystal Morey: Yotsuya Kaidan – The Story of Oiwa

By Crystal Morey
This is one of the most famous Japanese ghost stories and a popular motif here in Japan for tattoos. There are many variations since it was first penned in the early 1800s but the essence of the story is the same. It is the story of Tamiya Lemon, a samurai turned ronin, and his wife Oiwa. Lemon, a masterless samurai forced to take up employ in a redundant job making oil paper umbrellas becomes resentful and bitter about the downward turn his life has taken and he in turn focuses his frustration on his wife Oiwa… 

Oiwa’s looks and general vitality quickly diminish from the abuse heaped on her from her bitter husband and try as she might she cannot find a way to placate him. Lemon spies the granddaughter of a well to do merchant, Itô Kihei and discovers that his granddaughter, Ouma harbors feelings for him as well.

Kihei drops a remark about how unfortunate it is that Lemon is married and soon the two are hunched over behind the merchants cart plotting Oiwa’s murder. Not soon after Lemon poisoned Oiwa’s food but instead of killing her it disfigured her horribly. Her hair dropped out, and her eyes drooped.

Her face fell out of proportion. When she saw herself Oiwa was horrifying and committed suicide, leaving the path clear for Lemon to marry the rich granddaughter. One of their servants, Kobote Kohei, witnessed Lemon’s treachery so lemon accused him of theft. They fought and Lemon pushed Kohei into a door and ran him through with his sword. The door fell off its hinges so Lemon nailed the body of Oiwa to one side of a door, and the body of the servant on the other and flung it into the river. Lemon and his young mistress Ouma planned an elaborate wedding.

On the night before he was to be married he was walking into his house when the lantern dimmed and split, forming itself into the likeness of the disfigured Oiwa and hissing “Betrayal” at him, scaring the ba-jeezus out of him. Still spooked on his wedding day, when Lemon lifted the Ouma’s veil he was met with the visage not of his beautiful young bride, but of Oiwa… and an angry Oiwa at that.

Frightened he drew his sword and beheaded his bride, who of course slumped to the ground restored as Ouma, now dead as a doornail. Horrified he ran off to find Kihei, seeing Oiwa in every reflective surface and lantern he passed. He finds the merchant walking up the path from his house and races to him but is stopped mid-flight by the visage of his murdered servant, Kobote, and not Kihei, approaching him.

Terrified, he drew his sword and slashed blindly at Kobote, only to discover, too late once again, that it was indeed the merchant he was attacking. Haunted by Oiwa wherever he went – lanterns transformed into her face when he passed, with lolling tongue and drooping eye – he retreated to the mountains to live as a hermit. One day while fishing he hooked the door he’d nailed his victims to and dragged it ashore.

Walking home ropes and vines changed into snakes and smoke from the fire changed into Oiwa’s hair and Lemon, driven completely mad races up the mountain and straight towards the cliffs. It was rumored my the people below that as he stood at the edge of the cliff a woman shoved him from behind laughing and screaming betrayal as she jumped off after him.

As I mentioned earlier, this is one version of the story… and there are many. But all are essentially the same and Oiwa is one of the most famous Onryo-o, a very specific and Japanese ghost bent on vengeance. Onryo-o usually forms when someone dies horribly by the hand of another.

Love, spite, jealousy, rage or extreme sorrow can bring a person back to the physical plane as an Onryo-o and it will haunt the person responsible, and cause great suffering. Onryo-o manifest like they appeared in death so are usually horrifically frightening and they go after not just the murderer but all the people he is close too….waiting till he is fully suffering to exact their final revenge.

(Crystal Morey works for Gomineko Books and is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. For more info on Gomineko Books please visit their website:

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