When Oiwa and Iemon first married, he was a dashing handsome samurai and she was a beautiful lady. A few years later, Oiwa was in delicate health after a difficult pregnancy and childbirth. Iemon, now an unemployed ronin (masterless, unaffiliated samurai), was forced to labor as an umbrella-maker to support his family, something he perceived as degradingly beneath his dignity. He hated his life and resented his family obligations. The gorgeous granddaughter of a wealthy, successful neighbor was enamored of Iemon and wanted to marry him. There was only one problem and it was named Oiwa. Iemon and the neighbor plotted to eliminate her. Iemon brought Oiwa something he called blood-road medicine, intended to revitalize and rejuvenate her. Really it was poison. He was inept; he gave her the wrong dose. The poison did not kill Oiwa as intended but it made her sick and disfigured her. Her once lustrous hair fell out by the handful. Her face was distorted: one eye drooping and swollen shut, the other gazing perpetually upwards. When Oiwa saw her reflection in the mirror, she died of a broken heart, in despair at Iemon’s betrayal and her appearance. (Alternatively she committed suicide.) Her death is usually placed on 22 February 1636.
The character of Sadako in the film versions of Koji Suzuki’s Ring novels is an amalgam of Okiku (the well) and Oiwa (her face).
Iemon was pleased; his new wedding could proceed. He realized, however, that their faithful servant, who had cared for Oiwa in her illness, had figured out the situation. Iemon accused him of theft, a capital offense, and killed him. The two bodies were nailed to either sides of a wooden door and flung into the river. Iemon imagined he was starting a happy, new life.
On his wedding night, Iemon lifted his new bride’s veil only to see Oiwa’s contorted face staring back at him. Instinctively, he drew his sword and beheaded her. When the illusion passed, Iemon discovered he had killed his new bride. Suddenly confronted by the ghost of his murdered servant, Iemon beheaded him, too, only to discover he had killed his friend/neighbor/father-in-law.
Now a wanted man, Iemon fled, but Oiwa pursued and haunted him wherever he went. She never physically harmed him: her goal was mental torture. She drove him to madness as her unmistakable face appeared when least expected, for instance manifesting in a burning lantern. (Oiwa is sometimes called the lantern ghost.)
Iemon imagined he could escape by fleeing to the countryside. He took up residence in Hebiyama (Snake Mountain). He was clearly not a man with metaphysical interests or else would have recognized the association of snakes with the Yin world, the realm of ghosts.
Hungry, Iemon went fishing. He hooked a big one, all right: the door with the two rotting bodies still attached.
• At night, ropes and vines around his cabin transformed into snakes.
• Smoke from the hearth fire transformed into Oiwa’s hair.
Iemon, absolutely out of his mind, ran out into the night and straight into the path of his pursuing brother-in-law, who killed him.
Oiwa did not rest in peace. She returned to Yotsuya, her old neighborhood, and recalled every grudge she had sublimated while alive, taking violent revenge on anyone who had ever insulted or hurt her. Neighbors decided to pacify her by giving her a proper burial and building her a shrine. More or less, they have been successful.
Oiwa is Japan’s most famous ghost. Legends of Oiwa inspired Yotsuya Kaidan, a Kabuki play based on her tragedy, written and first produced in 1825. Over thirty filmed versions of Yotsuya Kaidan have been produced, although some were lost after World War II. Her story appears on Japanese television annually. Oiwa is a favourite subject of netsuke carvers as well as artists, including Hokusai, Yoshitoshi, and Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Ayakashi-Samurai Horror Tales: Yotsuya Ghost Story (2007), an anime version of her tale, includes footage of her shrine.
Oiwa is more than just a literary character. She is a living presence, something between a vengeful ghost and a goddess. Oiwa may manifest her powers benevolently but she still burns with rage and resentment. Oiwa grants wishes to those who respectfully visit her grave to pay homage but she reputedly afflicts visitors who come to gawk or are otherwise disrespectful with a temporarily swollen right eye, that resembles hers.
Oiwa is ambivalent toward the entertainment she has inspired. She allegedly hovers in theaters watching all productions. Productions of Yotsuya Kaidan are often beset with bad luck. Actors and other theatrical participants have frequently suffered accidents and misfortune. In one production alone, an actress died in a car accident, a crew member committed suicide, and a ceiling light inexplicably fell, causing injuries. Coincidence? Many think not.
It is now traditional for anyone involved in dramatizations of Oiwa’s life to visit her grave and make offerings, most especially the actress in the starring role. Thinking of staging a backyard production? Make sure you visit her shrine first. A place setting is included for Oiwa at any cast-gathering or party. When honored, Oiwa causes no harm and may even be protective.
ALSO KNOWN AS:
The Yotsuya ghost
Oiwa’s defining characteristics are her contorted eyes and bald patches amid otherwise long, now unkempt hair. According to witnesses however, sometimes traces of her old beauty peek through her ravaged appearance.
The image of Oiwa’s face in the lantern is particularly popular.
The Oiwa Inari shrine in Yotsuya, Tokyo—her grave is beneath the big tree.
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by :Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.