One of the more well known ghost stories in Japan is of the poor servant Okiku, the girl that died in the well and comes back, forever counting the plates of her master, hoping that one time, she won’t be missing any.

The tale of Banchō Sarayashiki (番町皿屋敷, The Dish Mansion at Banchō) is a well known Japanese ghost story (kaidan). It was popularized in the kabuki theater tradition, and lives on in popular culture and folklore alike.

It is a tale of dying unjustly and the haunting of righting a wrong. The story always revolves around Okiku, a servant, who was killed by her master. Not to be confused with Okiku, the haunted doll which is equally terrifying, but a different tale altogether. It has had many adaptations and different variations of the legends exists. Here in this article, we are trying to focus mostly on the folktale the stage plays and books are based on.

The Banchō Sarayashiki tale is one of Japan’s three most famous ghost stories, known as Nihon san dai kaidan. The other two being:

Japan’s Three Biggest Ghost Stories:

Japanese paper lanterns

The Myth of Oiwa – the Paper Lantern Ghost

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young woman who died. She went on a murderous rampage and she forever haunts the place of Yotsuya. The end.

Botan Dōrō – Tales of the Peony Lantern

The Botan Dōrō or Tales of the Peony Lantern is a ghost story told since the Ming dynasty in China to today. Most popular through the Kaidan theater plays, it is now one of Japan’s most well known ghost stories.

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The Story

There once was a servant Okiku. She worked for a samurai named Aoyama Tessan in his mansion. She was a beautiful girl and her master fell in love in her, and told her he wanted to marry her. However she did not feel the same and had to refuse his advances and he grew tired and angry at her refusals. To make her follow his will he made a plan to trick her.

The print depicts the ghost of Okiku appearing by the well in which her master, Aoyama Tessan, murdered her. From the Thirty-six Ghosts series by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 1890.
Banchō Sarayashik: The print depicts the ghost of Okiku appearing by the well in which her master, Aoyama Tessan, murdered her.
From the Thirty-six Ghosts series by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 1890.

The family had at that time, ten precious Delft plates, a type of glazed porcelain. Very valuable and pretty. Losing one of them would be a crime punished by death. As a servant, Okiku was in charge of taking care of these plates and she knew very well the consequences if she messed up. The master of the house used this and he tricked her, thinking she had lost one of them by hiding it.

She counted, and recounted the nine plates, over and over again. But it was never enough. She could’t find the tenth plate and she went to her master, pleading for forgiveness. He said he would overlook the mistake she thought she had done, if she only became his lover. But to his surprise she refused, again. And Aoyama couldn’t take it.

Enraged, he threw her down a well were she died. In some version, she threw herself down the well to escape the torment from her master. In either cases, she died in that well. Perhaps quickly, hitting the stone walls, perhaps slowly, drowning in the dark water.

It is said she became an onryō, a vengeful spirit, back for revenge of those who wronged her. The ghost of Okiku tormented her murderer, every night, rising from the well and coming up to the mansion again, making him go insane in the end. She was still counting the plates, one by one. Only reaching nine everytime, then making a terrible shriek when she again missed the tenth plate.

According to legends, an onryō is very difficult to get rid of. In this case, no one built a shrine in her honor to appease the spirit, however, some say that a Buddhist monk or a neighbor appeased the ghost by shouting ten to her, making her believe all of the plates were finally there, but then again— Some says she still haunts the castle she used to work in, unable to ever move on.

In some versions of the tale it is the mistress of the manor that breaks one of the dishes making Okiku commits suicide because of the mistress torment because she is jealous of Okiku. Similar to the other versions, her ghost is heard counting the plates, but in this version it is the mistress who goes insane and dies.

Read more about the Onryō 

Onryo English: Yūrei ゆふれい from Bakemono no e (化物之繪, c. 1700), Harry F. Bruning Collection of Japanese Books and Manuscripts, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Date circa 1700 Source https://archive.org/details/bakemonozukushie00 Author Brigham Young University

Onryō — the Vengeful Japanese Spirit

In many cultures, ghosts are put in different categories. Such is the case with Onryō (怨霊 onryō,) It basically means “vengeful spirit” or “wrathful spirit” in Japanese and is a mythological spirit of vengeance from Japanese folklore. They also have ghosts, called yurei, but these differ in the will of the ghost. As opposed to the yurei, these ghosts doesn’t just get over their revenge thoughts.

The Stage Play Adaption

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The Banchō Sarayashiki story was first seen as a bunraku, a type of puppet show, way back in 1741, based on the legend of the Manor of the Dishes and the poor servant. It was then turned into a kabuki play. But perhaps the most popular adaption of the legend is a play written in 1916 by Okamoto Kido, a modern version were the horror elements of the tale was turned into a psychological drama between the two characters.

Today the most famous adaption of this legend though is The Ring franchise with the vengeful spirit Sadako climbing out from the well to haunt the living and get her revenge.

The Hauntings

The haunting of Okiku’s ghost have been widely reported on for centuries. All back in 1795 the old wells in Japan got a larvae infestation that were blamed on the ghost of Okiku. It was later known as the “Okiku insect” (お菊虫, okiku mushi). They long thought that the infestation was a reincarnation of Okiku. It is not uncommon that disasters and accidents were the works of vengeful ghosts throughout Asia.

photo of himeji castle behind white cherry blossoms
The location: One of the stage adaption places the legend at the wonderful Himeji Castle and the well on the castle ground attracts tourists as well as the beautiful white castle and cherry blossoms does. Photo by Nien Tran Dinh on Pexels.com

Most of the legends claim that the hauntings of the Banchō Sarayashiki legend are in Edo (Tokyo). But there is a claim that the location of where it happened, is at the beautiful Himeji Castle, one of the biggest sightseeing places in Japan. It is claimed as the location in the Banchō Sarayashiki retelling in Ningyo Joruri’s version of the play. One the spots to see is the Okiku-Ido, or the Okiku Well were her ghost still lingers. There is also a well in the garden of the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, supposedly built on land bought from the Aoyama family, that claims this is the well she died in. In both versions though, the story is the same:

Illustration of Okiku in the well by Katsushika Hokusai, most known for making the The Great Wave off Kanagawa, painting. From the one hundred ghost tales series.
In The Well: by Katsushika Hokusai, most known for making the The Great Wave off Kanagawa, painting. From the one hundred ghost tales series.

At night, she comes out from the well to count the plates. One plate, two plate …’ ‘Nine plate, … one is missing …’ she goes. According to the some variations to the ghost story, you will die if you stay to the end with her reaching the tenth plate. If you manage to flee before her reaching the seventh, you may live, although you may lose your mind.

What is even more creepy is that this exact well fount at Himeji Castle to this day has bars all over it. Keeping the tourist out. Or.. perhaps keeping something in?

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References:

Ghost Story of Okiku – artelino

https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/culture/Sarayashiki%20(The%20Haunted%20Plate%20House).html

Bancho Sarayashiki: Okiku And The Nine Plates (Ep. 25)

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