Monday, November 28, 2011

Traditional Japanese Ghost Story: Okiku

The Japanese love telling ghost stories. One prevalent tale that has been shared since the 12th century is “The Story of Okiku.” 

This story involves a traditional Japanese ghost called a “yuurei.” Like many ghost stories that have been told from one generation to the next, there are several versions of Okiku’s story.

This story is connected to Japanese religious beliefs. The Shinto belief is that all people have a soul, which is called a “reikon.” When a person dies, their reikon leaves their body and joins the souls of their ancestors. 

The Japanese believe there are exceptions to this. For instance, if a person dies suddenly because they were murdered, killed in battle, or they commit suicide-- then their bodies are often not given a proper burial. 

These misplaced souls sometimes become revengeful ghosts called “yuureis.” Yuurei in Japanese means—the soul of the dead.

Many yuureis are females who in life suffered greatly. Causes for this suffering might be love, jealousy, sorrow, or regret. 

These ghosts usually appear wearing the traditional Japanese white kimono known as a Katabira. For centuries these kimonos were used to bury women in. 

Two more defining characteristics of the yuurei ghost is they have no legs, and they are seen between the hours of 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. 

One of the most famous yuurei ghosts appears in the folk story, Bancho Sarayashiki—The Story of Okiku. As stated above, this story has several versions. 

This story is about a young maid named Okiku, who works for a family whose master Tessan Aoyama is a samurai. One day while cleaning the families’ ten precious ceramic plates, she accidentally breaks one of them. The outraged Aoyama kills her and throws her body into a well. 

Every night, after this, Okiku’s ghost rises from the well, slowly she is heard counting out nine plates, and then she breaks into heartbreaking sobs over and over again. This torments Aoyama, who goes insane in the end. So Okiku gets her revenge.

Most versions of this story have Okiku counting from one to nine, and then she heart- wails and sobs. They also state she was thrown in the well after being killed. 

She is always portrayed as the innocent victim of an unreasonable master.

One variation of the story mentions Aoyama actually wants to seduce Okiku. When she refuses his advances, he hides one of the ten Dutch plates and states he will accuse her of stealing it, if she does not become his mistress. In desperation, she throws herself into the well. 

Yet another version has the samurai’s wife break the plate, then she throws it in the well to hide her deed, she tells her husband Okiku stole it, then he kills Okiku. 

One kinder ending to this story has Aoyama paying a family friend to hide in the well and wait for Okiku to appear. As she counts one to nine, he finishes for her by shouting “ten.” This finally stops the sobbing and allows Okiku to rest.

The Japanese state that the well that Okiku was thrown into after she was killed still exists. The most common location cited is at Himeji Castle, also known as the White Egret Castle. 

This castle located west of Kobe has kept its original form for nearly 400 years. It is considered Japan’s most beautiful castle. 

In Japan’s recent devastating earthquake and tsunami, it was not impacted. 

Another area cited for being the possible location of Okiku’s well is at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo that was established on land bought from the Aoyama family. 


Zack Davisson said...

Nice post on Okiku. I have been to Okiku's well in Himeji. Well, one of the wells at any rate. There are a few that claim to be "The Well."

If you are interested in traditional Japanese ghost stories, I have a website where I translate them:

Come check it out!

Virginia Lamkin said...

I will definitely check out your site. I am so jealous you have visited Himeji Castle. I have visited Japan but while there I did an exchange involving origami so I didn't have the time to do other things.

Unknown said...

hi yes the real okiku's well is at Himeji castle