Three classic folktales of spirits seeking revenge on their murderers.
Hello, friends and foes! This article marks the first of a continuing series exploring creepy folklore from all around the world. Through polls on both Twitter and Instagram, I allow YOU to decide what country we will visit every month. This month’s choice was Japan.
Japan is a fascinating place with a rich culture of storytelling through various mediums, including kabuki (stage plays), bunraku (traditional Japanese puppetry), and song. Japanese folklore is riddled with bone-chilling tales of monstrous creatures and terrifying ghosts (and I’m not just talking about Sadako, although she does make this list… kind of). I want to explore the Nihon Sandai Kaidan, Japan’s Three Great Ghost Stories. They hail from the Edo Period (1603-1867) and feature a type of Japanese ghost called onryou – vengeful female spirits who have returned to the Earthly plane to exact revenge upon their murderers.
Let us begin with the story of Oiwa, also known as Yotsuya Kaidan. First staged in 1825 as a double-feature kabuki, the play was wildly successful, credited with bringing ghost stories into the lives of the common people.
We meet the masterless (read: out of work) samurai Iemon and his devoted and supportive wife, Oiwa. While Oiwa is hard at work to provide for the family, Iemon befriends a wealthy doctor who eventually gives him an offer he can’t refuse. The doctor’s granddaughter becomes smitten with Iemon and demands to marry him. The doctor promises Iemon great wealth if he would marry his granddaughter, and Iemon cannot resist this temptation. There is just one problem – he is still married to Oiwa.
The doctor gives Iemon a poison which he gives to Oiwa discreetly every day. Some versions of the tale say it was a powdered poison, others describe it to be a face cream, deceptively said to prolong Oiwa’s devastating beauty. It does the opposite, of course, and day by day it causes Oiwa’s face to become disfigured and renders her sickly and frail. It is said that upon looking in the mirror and seeing her horrifying disfigurement, Oiwa died in a fit of shock and fright. With her dying breath, she cast a curse upon her husband and vowed to haunt him for the remainder of his days.
Iemon subsequently sees Oiwa’s hideous visage everywhere after her death; in passersby, lanterns, and mirrors. It is not long before Iemon descends into madness at the hand of Oiwa’s curse. As he should.
Oiwa’s tragic tale is often regarded as the most adapted Japanese folktale, having been filmed over 18 times between the years 1912 and 1937 alone. The most notable film adaptation is Shinto Studio’s 1959 version, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost of Yotsuya), directed by Nobuo Nakagawa.
Next, let’s examine the tale of Okiku. It might not sound familiar, but it will in a moment. Trust me. Bancho Sarayashiki (The Dish Mansion) first appeared in 1741 as a bunraku (traditional Japanese puppetry performed in a theater). We meet a beautiful servant girl named Okiku who works for a wealthy samurai. The samurai falls in love with Okiku for her beauty but she spurns his many advances. Tired of being rejected, the samurai deceives (read: gaslights) Okiku into thinking she has lost the precious tenth plate of a special collection – a crime punishable by death.
Okiku counts the plates again and again; one through nine, ichi through kyuu; never finding the elusive tenth plate that the samurai has hidden from her. The Samurai offers Okiku leniency for her crime if she agrees to be his lover. Okiku refuses and the samurai flies into a fit of rage, beating Okiku and casting her down a well to her death.
Legend says her ghostly wails carry over the mansion grounds… “ichi… ni… san… shi… go… roku… shichi… hachi… kyuu…” emitting an ear-splitting screech when she reaches the end of her count and the place of the stolen tenth plate. It is said if you hear the counting all the way to kyuu (nine) then you are soon to meet your own grim fate…
The most popular film inspired by Okiku’s tale is The Ring (2002), directed by Gore Verbinski (though this film is a remake of the Japanese original, Ring, from 1998). Though Sadako’s origin varies from Okiku’s, their ghostly appearance, lust for revenge, and tragic manner of death are similar. Sadako and Okiku actually get to meet in the manga Sadako at the End of the World (2020) by Koma Natsumi.
The third and final tale of the Nihon Sandai Kaidan is the story of Otsuyu, Botan Doro (The Peony Lantern). The story originates from a 17th century Japanese translation of a Chinese book of ghost stories Jiandeng Xinhua (New Tales Under the Lamplight). It begins with a young couple that has fallen madly in love, Saburo and the radiantly beautiful Otsuyu. When Saburo falls ill, he is unable to see Otsuyu for many months. When he finally recovers and attempts to contact his love, Otsuyu’s aunt informs him that she has died. Saburo feverishly prays for Otsuyu, and eventually she appears at his doorstep with her maid, carrying a peony lantern to light their path.
The lovers commune each night in Saburo’s home, making passionate love until dawn. A nosy servant sneaks a peek inside Saburo’s bedchamber and finds him sleeping with the decaying body of a woman. Another rotting skeleton sits in the doorway holding – you guessed it – a peony lantern. With the help of a Buddhist priest, Saburo is taken to the graves of Otsuyu and her maid and is convinced of the haunting truth – it is her spirit coming to sleep with him every night, not her.
Saburo and the priest ward the ghosts away with ofuda (talismans), but they still linger just outside the door, wailing for Saburo with a lover’s longing. Saburo’s health rapidly declines and his servants, fearing that he will die without his beloved, remove the ofuda to allow Otsuyu and her maid to enter the house once more. Saburo is found the next morning, laying with Otsuyu’s skeleton, dead. Legend says his face was frozen in an expression of blissful ecstasy.
I hope you enjoyed this haunted jaunt into the world of Japanese folklore and ghost stories. There are countless urban legends and shadowy creatures lurking the streets of Japan that I hope to cover in a later article. For now, I leave you with Oiwa, Okiku, and Otsuyu, Japan’s three greatest
girlbosses ghost stories.
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.
All other images are certified public domain.
Matsuura, Theresa. “Japan’s Three Great Ghost Stories.” Sotheby’s, 30 Oct. 2019, https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/japans-three-great-ghost-stories.
“Yotsuya Kaidan”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yotsuya_Kaidan.
“Bancho Sarayashiki”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banch%C5%8D_Sarayashiki#Folk_version.
“Botan Doro”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Botan_D%C5%8Dr%C5%8D.
Sacasas, Caitlin. “Japanese Numbers: Counting in Japanese from 1-100+”. Fluent in 3 Months, https://www.fluentin3months.com/japanese-numbers/.