Sunday, June 21, 2015

Okiku's Well

Near the city of Himeji, in Japan's Hyogo Prefecture, stands Hemeji Castle, a large and imposing structure, as the best castles are. As with other castles, this one contains a well, which served as a source of water in normal times, and prevented an embargo on water from being a deciding factor during a siege. This well, stories hold, is the source of a haunting that may have destroyed a proud samurai. 

The story holds that, during the 18th century, the Samurai Aoyama Tessan served the lord of Hemeji Castle, and employed a young female servant named Okiku. Tessan wanted Okiku for his lover, but she refused his advances, leaving him frustrated. Then, one day, he came up with a fiendish plan: in the castle were ten Defltware plates, valuable plates imported to Japan from Europe, and Aoyama hid, destroyed, or otherwise did away with one of them (in some versions of the story, the plates were the property of the lord of the castle, in others they belong to Aoyama or his wife). He then accused Okiku of having stolen the tenth plate. Such a crime could carry the death sentence.

Okiku, seeing that she was in danger, frantically searched for the missing plate, and upon deciding that it was not to be found, began counting and re-counting the plates that she had, hoping each time that the total would come to ten, but, of course, it never did.

Aoyama, seeing that his plan had created the very situation that he had hoped for, made his move. He told Okiku that he would overlook her alleged transgression and she could live on if she would agree to become his lover.  She refused, and, in a fit of rage, Aoyama threw her down the well, where she died.

Later, her voice began to be heard from the well, counting to nine, and then shrieking rather than saying "ten". It is said that she would also rise from the well, frightening any who saw her.  Aoyama was terrified by the spirit, and sought relief. It is sometimes said that Aoyama never found relief, and eventually was driven insane by the vengeful spirit. In other tellings, Okiku was not trying to torment the samurai, but was stricken with sorrow over her fate, stemming from her inability to find the tenth plate. In these tellings, an exorcist, or sometimes just a neighbor, shouts out "ten" after the spirit calls out "nine" but before she can shriek, thus leaving Okiku to believe that the missing plate has been found and releasing her from her counting task to find rest.

Himeji castle still stands, and there are those who say that, to this day, at midnight, Okiku's voice can be heard counting to nine, as she emerges out of the well. After she reaches the top of the well, she will shriek rather than say "ten."

It is worth noting that, in some versions of the story, Okiku throwws herself int he well out of desperation, rather than being thrown down. And in some (including, I am told, the version told at Hemeji Castle, which is a tourist attraction) she had overheard scheming on the part of Aoyama, who planned to betray his lord, and Aoyama contrived the plan to hide the plate in order to do away with Okiku, rather than to gain leverage over her.

Commentary: This Japanese folk tale is also the source material for many other media. Kabuki plays, written stories, traditional puppet shows, and, int he 20th and 21st centuries, film and television. The story has a lot of staying power, not no wonder given how well it uses elements of ghost lore common across the world.

The story is, by an large, a straightforward one. Depending on the version, it is either about the spirit of a woman who even in death cannot break free from the evil deeds of a man (shades of La Llarona), or a vengeful and accusing spirit (a story common enough in ghost folklore, but very well executed by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales).  Unlike many ghost stories, which are culture-specific, this one travels well and makes sense in the context of many different regional folklores. This leads me to winder if this is because there are many similarities between Japanese ghost folklore and that of other areas (especially Europe and North America), or if the story is, like the Delftware plates involved, a product of cultural mixing with elements of European folklore blending with Japanese (I don't know enough about Japanese folklore to say, but I do know that reading ethnographies of Native Americans written from the late 19th through the​ mid-20th century reveals just such a mixing as regards ghost folklore, so it is absolutely conceivable). 

Most dramatized version vary significantly from the folktale, often with different samurai playing the role of the villain, and with their particular treatment of Okiku varying a bit as well. In some versions, the Samurai doesn't simply throw Okiku down the well, but also tortures her before she is left in the well to die. In others, as noted above, Okiku throws herself into the well to escape Aoyama. In some versions of the story, Okiku and a Samurai other than Aoyama are already lovers and she wishes to marry him, but he is more interested in an offer from a woman of his station. In this version, Okiku intentionally breaks a plate to see how the Samurai will react, and he tries to cover for her claiming that it was an accident. Okiku reveals that she was testing him, and in a fit of rage, the samurai kills her and throws her down the well.

Elements of the story show up frequently in Japanese pop culture (for example, the ghost in the well in Ringu, which became the ghost in the well in the American film The Ring, was inspired by this tale). And, given the popularity of Japanese horror, spreading throughout the world, it is likely that the influence of this story will spread across the world.

Sources: IO9, Wikipedia, Artelino, Wikia

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