A Dead Secret: A Japanese Ghost Story

The following is another of my favorite stories from the 19th-century collection of Japanese ghost stories called Kaidan (怪談, old spelling Kwaidan) written by Greco-Irish author Lafcadio Hearn. As this is Obon Season in Japan, it’s a great time to enjoy a scary story or two…


A long time ago, in the province of Tamba (1), there lived a rich
merchant named Inamuraya Gensuke. He had a daughter called O-Sono. As
she was very clever and pretty, he thought it would be a pity to let
her grow up with only such teaching as the country-teachers could give
her: so he sent her, in care of some trusty attendants, to Kyoto, that
she might be trained in the polite accomplishments taught to the ladies
of the capital. After she had thus been educated, she was married to a
friend of her father's family--a merchant named Nagaraya;--and she
lived happily with him for nearly four years. They had one child,--a boy.
But O-Sono fell ill and died, in the fourth year after her marriage.

On the night after the funeral of O-Sono, her little son said that his
mamma had come back, and was in the room upstairs. She had smiled at
him, but would not talk to him: so he became afraid, and ran away. Then
some of the family went upstairs to the room which had been O-Sono's;
and they were startled to see, by the light of a small lamp which had
been kindled before a shrine in that room, the figure of the dead
mother. She appeared as if standing in front of a tansu, or chest of
drawers, that still contained her ornaments and her wearing-apparel.
Her head and shoulders could be very distinctly seen; but from the
waist downwards the figure thinned into invisibility;--it was like an
imperfect reflection of her, and transparent as a shadow on water.

Then the folk were afraid, and left the room. Below they consulted
together; and the mother of O-Sono's husband said: "A woman is fond of
her small things; and O-Sono was much attached to her belongings.
Perhaps she has come back to look at them. Many dead persons will do
that,--unless the things be given to the parish-temple. If we present
O-Sono's robes and girdles to the temple, her spirit will probably find

It was agreed that this should be done as soon as possible. So on the
following morning the drawers were emptied; and all of O-Sono's
ornaments and dresses were taken to the temple. But she came back the
next night, and looked at the tansu as before. And she came back also
on the night following, and the night after that, and every night;--and
the house became a house of fear.

The mother of O-Sono's husband then went to the parish-temple, and told
the chief priest all that had happened, and asked for ghostly counsel.
The temple was a Zen temple; and the head-priest was a learned old man,
known as Daigen Osho. He said: "There must be something about which she
is anxious, in or near that tansu."--"But we emptied all the drawers,"
replied the woman;--"there is nothing in the tansu."--"Well," said
Daigen Osho, "to-night I shall go to your house, and keep watch in that
room, and see what can be done. You must give orders that no person
shall enter the room while I am watching, unless I call."

After sundown, Daigen Osho went to the house, and found the room made
ready for him. He remained there alone, reading the sutras; and nothing
appeared until after the Hour of the Rat. [1]  Then the figure of
O-Sono suddenly outlined itself in front of the tansu. Her face had a
wistful look; and she kept her eyes fixed upon the tansu.

The priest uttered the holy formula prescribed in such cases, and then,
addressing the figure by the kaimyo [2] of O-Sono, said:--"I have come
here in order to help you. Perhaps in that tansu there is something
about which you have reason to feel anxious. Shall I try to find it for
you?" The shadow appeared to give assent by a slight motion of the
head; and the priest, rising, opened the top drawer. It was empty.
Successively he opened the second, the third, and the fourth
drawer;--he searched carefully behind them and beneath them;--he
carefully examined the interior of the chest. He found nothing. But the
figure remained gazing as wistfully as before. "What can she want?"
thought the priest. Suddenly it occurred to him that there might be
something hidden under the paper with which the drawers were lined. He
removed the lining of the first drawer:--nothing! He removed the lining
of the second and third drawers:--still nothing. But under the lining
of the lowermost drawer he found--a letter. "Is this the thing about
which you have been troubled?" he asked. The shadow of the woman turned
toward him,--her faint gaze fixed upon the letter. "Shall I burn it for
you?" he asked. She bowed before him. "It shall be burned in the temple
this very morning," he promised;--"and no one shall read it, except
myself." The figure smiled and vanished.

Dawn was breaking as the priest descended the stairs, to find the
family waiting anxiously below. "Do not be anxious," he said to them:
"She will not appear again." And she never did.

The letter was burned. It was a love-letter written to O-Sono in the
time of her studies at Kyoto. But the priest alone knew what was in it;
and the secret died with him.


(1) On the present-day map, Tamba corresponds roughly to the central area of Kyoto Prefecture and part of Hyogo Prefecture. 

[1] The Hour of the Rat (Ne-no-Koku), according to the old Japanese method of reckoning time, was the first hour. It corresponded to the time between our midnight and two o'clock in the morning; for the ancient Japanese hours were each equal to two modern hours. 

[2] Kaimyo, the posthumous Buddhist name, or religious name, given to the dead. Strictly speaking, the meaning of the word is sila-name. (See my paper entitled, "The Literature of the Dead" in Exotics and Retrospectives.)

Special thanks to Project Gutenberg for posting this book online, which I copied this chapter verbatim.

Note: This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever.  You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net

P.S. The topic of kaimyō (戒名, posthumous Buddhist names) is a good topic for a future post. It requires some explanation.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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