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Ghost Stories are a popular subject of Japanese woodblock prints. The ghost story of Okiku, an unfortunate servant maid, is one of the best known and was transformed into a Kabuki play and numerous novels.
In the kabuki play Bancho Sarayashiki, Okiku is a maid at the mansion of the Japanese samurai Tessan Aoyama. The samurai wants to seduce the cute girl but she rejects his advances. Aoyama uses a trick. He hides one of ten valuable Dutch plates and threatens Okiku to make public that she had stolen the plate unless she agrees to become his mistress. In her desperation Okiku throws herself into the well and drowns.
Okiku's ghost comes out every night, counting from one to nine and then breaks out into a terrible howling and sobbing. Finally Aoyama goes insane by the daily apparitions at night.
There are different versions of the ghost story of Okiku. What they all have in common is the description of her ghost coming out of the well and counting from one to nine and then breaking out into a heart-rendering sobbing.
In another version, Okiku really breaks a plate and is killed by her master and her corpse is thrown into the well.
In yet another version, it is the wife of Aoyama, who breaks the plate. To hide her guilt, she throws the broken plate into the well and accuses Okiku of having it stolen. In this version she is also killed by her master for punishment and thrown into the well.
There is also an alternate version for the end of the story. To stop the nightly sobbing, a friend of the family of Aoyama is hired. He is hiding at the well during the night and after Okiku had counted from one to nine, he is stepping forward shouting loudly "ten". From then on the ghost of Okiku was never seen again.
One of the tourist attractions on Himeji Castle is Okiku's well. In the Himeji version, Okiku was a servant of Aoyama, a retainer who planned a plot against his lord. Okiku overheard the plot and reported it to her lover, a loyal warrior. The plot was averted.
When Aoyama found out that Okiku had been the cause for his failure, he decided to kill her. So he accused her of having stolen one of ten valuable dishes. She was tortured to death and thrown into the well.
Okiku's well on Himeji Castle is in competition with another location of the well, the garden of the Canadian embassy in Tokyo - established on land bought from the Aoyama family. Looks like there are at least as many locations of the well of the poor girl as there are different versions of her story.
All the variations of the ghost story of Okiku have an extremely wrongful and cruel treatment of a poor girl of the lower classes in common. But different from the ghost story of Yotsuya, revenge towards the tormenter is not the big Leitmotiv (apart from one variation of the story).
Among the ukiyo-e artists designing ghost subjects, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892) should be mentioned in first place. Yoshitoshi strongly believed in the existence of ghosts and was convinced that he had personally seen supernatural apparitions in his life.
The print of The Ghost of Okiku at the Dish Mansion was part of the series Shinkei Sanju-roku Kai Sen. It was Yoshitoshi's last series before his death (together with one One Hundred Aspects of the Moon) and was published from 1889 to 1892. The series can be found under different English translations like New Selection of 36 Apparitions or Thirty-six New Ghosts.
Towards the end of his life, the subjects of Yoshitoshi's prints were predominantly chosen from Japan's rich cultural tradition and history. It was an appeal of the artist to his countrymen not to give up their traditional values in exchange for the Western modernization that had begun in the Meiji period.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(May 2002, updated September 2009)
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