A Japanese Ghost Story : Bancho Sarayashiki

2020年 01月24日

In our serie about Japanese ghost stories, after Yotsuya Kaidan, we will talk this week about Bancho Sarayashiki, which you probably already know without knowing since this legend inspired the famous film The Ring. It dates back at least to the 18th century since a play of Bunraku adapted it in 1741.
The story is about a young girl unjustly punished who will return to haunt her murderer, but also the whole of Japanese culture, since there are countless adaptations, references, paintings, etc… of her.
As usual, since it is a legend, there are many versions and each period has transformed, over the centuries, history according to the fashion, fears and concerns of the time. We will stick to the most commonly known version here:

A long time ago, there lived a beautiful and young maid named Okiku, whose master - a samurai named Aoyama - was known as cruel and brutal. The latter, coveting Okiku, made advances to him every day, wanting to make of her his mistress but the young woman applied herself to refuse them cordially. Losing patience, the samurai set a trap for Okiku. In fact, the household had 10 extremely valuable plates considered to be one of the family treasures, and their care was borne by the maid. Aoyama decided to hide one of the plates and then point out to Okiku that one was missing. In a panic, the latter started to count and count again the plates, breaking one being punishable by death, to arrive perpetually at the number of 9.
Aoyama offers to cover Okiku, on condition that she becomes his mistress, but the poor lady refuses once again. The samurai, mad with rage, beats her and makes her hang over a well, torturing her and plunging her inside, and asks her one last time if she would finally become his mistress. Refusing again, he kills her and throws her body in the well.

Since that day, Okiku’s voice has been heard from the well, counting from 1 to 9 and then uttering a terrible shriek. Some legends say that a monk would have succeeded in conjuring the ghost by shouting 10 at the end of her counting, and the spirit, thus appeased, would have passed into the world of the dead. Others say that we still hear every night, the desperate Okiku counting and crying, in the well of Himeji Castle; one of the most famous castle of Japan which has thus become a tourist attraction.
Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle at Dawn
In the 18th century, the legend was so widespread that by the time a larval invasion spread into the old wells of Japan, people started talking about the infection as Okiku’s revenge, and ended up calling the caterpillar the Okiku Mushi. Even today, the story remains very famous in Japan and there are several adaptations to cinema. The latter would have inspired the character of Sadako (or Samara in the American version) of the film The Ring.