Some of the most terrifying ghostlore in the world comes from Japan. Japanese ghosts tend to be far more malevolent and violent than their spectral western cohorts, and far less attractive in appearance. Many Japanese ghosts return to avenge themselves on the living, as in this story of a murdered wife who comes back to destroy the new life her wicked husband intends to make for himself and a younger, wealthier woman.
A samurai warrior from Yotsuya in Tokyo, whose name is lost in time, took as his wife an extremely beautiful, gentle woman called Oiwa. Oiwa was faithful in all things to her husband, in the old ways of the Japanese wife–right down to the way she never addressed him by his name: she always called him “Husband”.
Unfortunately, Husband was in no wise as faithful and loving as Oiwa. Some years into their marriage, he met and fell in love–or lust–with a young woman from a great and wealthy family. His new love was called Matsue, and as time passed he grew more obsessed with her. Eventually, he decided it was time for Oiwa to die, to clear the way for a marriage between him and Matsue.
One night he persuaded Oiwa to go for a walk with him, along cliffs above the sea. It was the dark of the moon, and, with no one to observe or prevent him, he gave Oiwa a hard shove to her death on the rocks below.
Next day, he and his friends went looking for her, finding her with her lovely face smashed to pieces and her broken body covered in sand and seaweed.
Husband put on an excellent show of grief, claiming that she had met with a fatal accident. With no witnesses, he got away with that spurious claim.
After Oiwa’s funeral, he returned alone to their home. He fell asleep on a mat, to dream of Matsue.
He was awakened by a high wind that shook the paper walls, one of which slid open to reveal Oiwa–but a changed Oiwa, her clothes in rags, one eye hanging on her cheek, her teeth broken, her hands like claws, reaching for him.
As he tried to hold back a scream, Oiwa hissed a single word at him: Vengeance. . .
Husband fled the house. The next night, he slept in an abandoned home nearby. Too nervous to be alone in the dark, he left a paper lantern burning near his bed. At midnight, he woke to find that, unaccountably, vines had broken through the walls and begun to writhe and shape themselves in to a semblance of Oiwa’s body. A cold breeze blew through the crack in the paper walls made by the vines, and the candle burning in the lantern guttered, setting the paper afire. Strangely, the fire made holes like two glowing eyes, and the bottom of the lantern moved like a jaw. Out of the fire came Oiwa’s voice: Vengeance. . .
Slashing at the vines with his sword, he ran shrieking into the night.
The formidable persecution continued unabated. At an inn, as he and two companions sat drinking tea, the two men suddenly seemed to go into a trance state and tried to kill him. When he shouted at them, asking what they were about, they answered in perfect unison, in Oiwa’s voice. Vengeance. . .
To this point Matsue, busy planning their wedding, had had no inkling of Oiwa’s unnatural death and return. Matsue happened, one day, to overhear Oiwa’s voice from another room, speaking to Husband, and became jealous, but he managed to persuade her that she had heard no woman’s voice.
At an engagement party, thrown by Husband to pacify Matsue, Oiwa appeared among the guests. Husband tried valiantly to distract the company with loud laughter, jokes and boasts, not realizing that he alone could see the hideous ghost of his late wife. Oiwa approached him as he grew noisier; he fell backwards, upsetting a tea table in his haste to get away, as Oiwa purred Vengeance. . .
Husband drew his sword and began flailing away at the ghost. His friends, thinking him drunk or mad, disarmed him, while an embarassed and terrified Matsue ran away. Their engagement was broken the next day.
Husband’s life was ruined, and he knew it. Eventually, on a night in the dark of the moon, demoralized and tired, he made his way to the cliffs where he had pushed Oiwa to her death. She was with him as he walked to the edge of the cliff and hurled himself over to die on the rocks, as she had.
The waves carried away Oiwa’s last whisper–Vengeance. . .–as she vanished into the darkness.
Richard and Judy Dockrey Young tell the story of Oiwa’s vengeance in their 1991 book Ghost Stories of the American Southwest. The Youngs say this is only one of many variants of a story called “Yotsuya Kaidan”–“Ghost Story from Yotsuya”–and is a favorite among California’s Nisei (American-born descendants of Japanese immigrants) people.