One of the more well known ghost stories in Japan is of the poor servant Okiku in the ghost story Banchō Sarayashiki has become the very image of a Japanese ghost story. 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.
Banchō Sarayashiki 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.
This old Japanese ghost stories called Kaidan (怪談,) meaning “strange, mysterious, rare, or bewitching apparition” and “talk” or “recited narrative“. In its broadest sense, kaidan refers to any ghost story or horror story, but it has an old-fashioned ring to it that carries the connotation of Edo period Japanese folktales.
The type of storytelling was especially popular in the Edo period with parlor games like Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai that focused in telling ghost stories.
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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:
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.
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.
Okiku and the Nine Plates
So what happened to the poor Okiku in the story of Banchō Sarayashiki that was so tragic and terrifying that it is still talked about today?
There once was a servant Okiku working for a samurai named Aoyama Tessan in his mansion in Japan. Okiku was a beautiful girl and Aoyama, 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 again and again. Her master started to grow tired and angry at her refusals. To make her follow his will he made a plan to trick her.
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 knew this as well and used this and he tricked her, thinking she had lost one of them by hiding it.
Okiku 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 no for an answer.
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. Okiku was still counting the nine plates, one by one. Only reaching nine everytime, then making a terrible shriek when she again missed the tenth plate.
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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.
Read more about the Onryō
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…
Banchō Sarayashiki Stage Play Adaptation
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, Okiku is heard counting the nine plates, but in this version it is the mistress who goes insane and dies.
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.
Read More: All our ghost stories from Japan
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 Okiku Insect Haunting the Wells in Japan
The haunting of Okiku’s ghost told in the Banchō Sarayashiki story, have been widely reported on for centuries, so exactly when it started to circulate as a ghost story before getting on the stage is unclear. Today the image of the young girl haunting and ascending from a well is such an iconic image.
But her haunting the wells in Japan was a well known motief long before the rise of J-Horror, and much of it was actually because of actual events in the 1700s.
A thing about these types of vengeful spirits like the onryō in Asia is their supposed forces to affect more than the ones who hurt them.
Vengeful ghosts often got blamed when there were peculiar natural disasters, accidents or even illnesses that could be linked to the ghost stories in some way. This was the case with the haunting of Okiku in the Banchō Sarayashiki.
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).
This larva that was actually a type of butterfly larva called Chinese Windmill, covered with thin threads making it look as though it had been bound, was widely believed to be a reincarnation of Okiku when it covered the old wells and became a part of the legend of the Banchō Sarayashiki.
People in Japan that had heard and believed in the ghost story thought for a long time that the infestation was a reincarnation of Okiku and the cause of the infestation.
Haunting The Himeji Castle
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. According to the legends, she is not th only ghost that are supposed to haunt the place.
One the spots to see at Himeji Castle 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:
At night, Okiku comes out from the well to count the nine 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.
Read More: The story of Okiku and more in: The Ghosts Of the Haunted Himeji Castle In Japan
What is even more creepy is that this exact well fount at Himeji Castle to this day has bars all over it as some type of security measurement. Keeping the tourist out. Or.. perhaps keeping something in?
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