#17 – “Okiku”

In the Japanese city of Himeji stands a hilltop castle. In its grounds is a well. A haunted well. Okiku was the beautiful servant of a Samurai. Murdered by her master for rejecting his advances, Okiku’s ghost is said to rise screaming from the well every night. 

Onryō (怨霊) is a Japanese word meaning “vengeful spirit” or “wrathful spirit”. More than mere apparitions, these angry ghosts are capable of affecting the physical realm and causing harm, or even death, to the living. It is recorded (and widely believed) that Genbō, the Japanese scholar-monk and bureaucrat of the Imperial Court at Nara, was murdered by the vengeful ghost of his enemy Fujiwara no Hirotsugu in the year 746. The onryō has become a staple of J-Horror, featuring in internationally successful films such as The Ring and The Grudge, but many Westerners may not have realised that ghosts of Sadako Yamamura and Kayako Saek are based on a traditional Japanese folkloric archetype. The way onryō are usually depicted – with long black hair, often partly obscuring their face, flowing white burial robes, pale faces and dark rimmed eyes – comes from the Japanese Kabuki theatre tradition, in which actors often had to change roles quickly and find a simple and effective visual shorthand for different character types.   

Himeji Castle is regarded as one of the finest surviving examples of Japanese castles of its era. Constructed on the site of a fort in the 13th century, the castle was extensively expanded and remodelled in the 15th. The story goes that a beautiful young servant named Okiku once lived and worked in the castle for the samurai Aoyama Tessan. Aoyama found Okiku very attractive, but the servant spurned her master’s advances. In a deeply unpleasant plot to force Okiku to submit to his desires, Aoyama hid one of his family’s ten prized delft plates, and accused the servant of losing or breaking it. When Okiku could not find the tenth plate and was forced to admit this to her master, he gave her a choice: she could suffer death, or she could become his lover. Still Okiku refused the advances of the samurai and so, in a fury, Aoyama threw her down the castle’s well, to her death. Soon after, the onryō of Okiku began to haunt the castle, rising from the well. Tearfully, her voice could be heard counting “One… two… three…”, but when it came to the missing tenth plate the ghost would let out a terrible scream.  

In some versions of the folk-tale the ghost of Okiku is laid to rest by being presented with the tenth plate, and her haunting of Aoyama Tessan brought to an end. In others the samurai is harrowed to death by the vengeful spirit. Okiku’s Well still stands in the grounds of Himeji Castle, and stories persist of Okiku’s spirit rising from its depths nightly, still searching for the lost plate. And counting. “One… two… three…”