Yotsuya Kaidan: The Horrifying Tale of the Vengeful Ghost Oiwa
Marijn Kruijff
6 min

Yotsuya Kaidan: The Horrifying Tale of the Vengeful Ghost Oiwa

6 min

Do you remember this now classic short horror video that was posted on YouTube ten years ago? If not, turn up the volume and brace yourself for the coming 14 seconds…

Did you get your breathing back on track again?


This chilling short clip clearly anticipates on successful Japanese horror movies like Ju On (aka. The Grudge) from 2003 and Ringu (aka. Ring) from 1998. The Japanese have a long tradition of ghost stories that goes back centuries. According to traditional Japanese beliefs, all humans have a spirit or soul called reikon.


After the onset of death, the reikon leaves the body and enters a hellish intermediate stage. Before the reikon may join its ancestors, it has to wait for the appropriate funeral and post-funeral ceremonies to be carried out. When this has been executed correctly, the reikon will be the protector of the living family, and return every year in August to receive thanks during the Obon Festival.

yotsuya kaidan

Fig.1. ‘Oiwa the Lantern Ghost‘ (c.1847) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)


However, if one dies in an unexpected or cruel way such as murder or suicide, and the proper ceremonies have not been executed, or if they are under the spell of strong emotions such as a longing for revenge, love, hate, jealousy or sorrow, the reikon is believed to transform into a yūrei. In this condition it is able to bridge the gap back to the physical world. The last thought of a dying person is an instruction for their yūrei to take action and complete this last thought before returning to the cycle of reincarnation.


Before the yūrei can be laid to rest it has to live on Earth and perform the absent rituals, or unravel the emotional conflict that still keeps it in the physical world. If the rites are not performed correctly or if there is no solution to the conflict, the yūrei will persevere in its haunting.

oiwa ghost

Fig.2. ‘Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, Scene at Hebiyama‘ (c.1940s) by Ito Seiu (1882-1961)

Yotsuya Kaidan

Often the lower the social status of the person who suffered a violent death, or was treated badly during his life, the stronger as a yūrei they would return. The most famous example can be found in the fate of Oiwa in the tale of Yotsuya Kaidan.


Oiwa is the vengeful ghost whose forceful dedication for revenge offers her the opportunity to return back to Earth. Oiwa’s story is based on real-life events and the real Oiwa died in 1636. According to myth, Oiwa was married to a samurai named Iemon. It was a bad marriage as Iemon was a careless man and a thief. When she decides to leave him and go back to her family Iemon chases her. He is stopped by Oiwa’s father, Yotsuya Samon who is familiar with his unreliability and demands that he divorces Oiwa. Iemon draws his sword and kills Samon.

Yotsuya Kaidan

Fig.3. ‘Oiwa holding a statue of Jizo‘ (c.1852) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi


When he returns to Oiwa he tells her a stranger killed him and that he will avenge her father. He convinces her and shortly afterwards she gives birth to his baby. But after a short time, their life became grimmer. Oiwa became sickly after giving birth, and they had little money. Iemon saw her more and more as a burden and when he meets Oume, the beautiful granddaughter of a rich doctor named Ito Kihei, he wants to get rid of her. With the help of the doctor he gives Oiwa an ointment, supposedly to help her recover from her sickness, but in reality is a poison that horribly mutilates her face. Her scarred face, repels Iemon, and his hatred grows even more.


Kihei gives him the option to divorce Oiwa and marry his granddaughter, and thus inherit the wealth of the Ito family. Iemon is so disgusted by Oiwa’s appearance and attracted to the young and beautiful Oume that he agrees. In order to have enough money to marry her he pawns Oiwa’s possessions. Because he needed a valid reason to divorce Oiwa, he hired his friend Takuetsu to rape her so that he can accuse her of infidelity.

Yotsuya Kaidan

Fig.4. ‘Oiwa with bloody clumps of hair in her hands‘ (c.1840) by an unknown member of the Utagawa school (Euro 365,-)

Bloody Clumps

Iemon instructs him to get into the house on a predetermined night, when he is not at home, and execute his act. But when Takuetsu entered and approached Oiwa, he is so horrified that he does not carry out his assignment. He tells Oiwa about Iemon’s intentions and shows her a mirror. Oiwa was not aware of what the ointment had done to her face, and therefore was transfixed when she saw her reflection. In horror, she tried to cover the deformity by placing her hair over it but it fell out in large, bloody clumps (Fig.4.). Oiwa went insane, and tried to cut her own throat with a nearby sword. As she lay on the floor bleeding to death, she kept repeating Iemon’s name until she blew out her last breath.

Nailed to a Door

Her body was found by Kohei, a servant of Iemon. To his surprise, Iemon was not upset but delighted, when he delivered him the bad news about Oiwa. Kohei grew suspicious, but was killed before he could do anything. Iemon nailed both Kohei and Oiwa’s body to a door, and got rid of them in a river (Fig.5 and 6). Later, he manufactured the lie that Kohei and Oiwa had an affair. Now he finally cleared the way for a marriage with Oume.

yotsuya kaidan

Fig.5. ‘Kohei nailed to a door by an excited Iemon‘ (c.1840)    (Euro 650,-)

yotsuya kaidan

Fig.6. ‘Oiwa nailed to a door by her villainous husband Iemon‘ (c.1840) by an unkown member of the Utagawa school


Oiwa’s malediction soon came into effect. Already, during their wedding night, Iemon had trouble sleeping, and when he turned around in his bed, he saw right next to him, the gruesome, mutilated face of Oiwa’s ghost. He quickly took his sword and tried to slash the ghost. At that moment, the hallucination disappeared, and a stunned Iemon realised that he had not cut Oiwa, but his beloved Oume. Now, she lay dead on the floor.

oiwa ghost

Fig.7.  ‘Monster Lantern O’iwa‘ (c.1830s) by Katsushika Hokusai

Harrowing Voice

Frightened, Iemon rushed to his new father in law for aid. But when he got to the Ito house, he was confronted by the ghost of the slayed Kohei. Once again he struck with his sword, but faster than he realized the hallucination ended and he saw Itō Kihei’s lifeless body lying on the floor. Subsequently, Iemon vanished into the night, but Oiwa’s spirit chased him. Wherever he went, Oiwa’s onryō (vindictive spirit) appeared immediately. Her ravaged face haunted him in his dreams, and her harrowing voice constantly reminded him of her revenge.


She appeared everywhere, even in the paper lanterns that lit his way (Fig.7.). Finally, he fled into the mountains, where he took refuge in a remote cabin. But even there Iemon was found by Oiwa’s ghost. He was no longer able to discern hallucination from reality, and eventually sank into the dark night of madness.

Yotsuya Kaidan

Fig.8. ‘Actor Onoe Kikugorô III as the Ghost of Oiwa‘ (c.1826/ Bunsei 9, 1st Month) by Shunkôsai Hokushû (act.1810-1832) (Picture: MFA Boston)

Click HERE for a rare series by Kuniyoshi consisting of twenty-four bizarre ghost images..!!