Well, well, well…. Japanese wells, actually

What is the significance of the humble well in Japanese imagery? I had not even realised that there was a significance until I was reading Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan. Toward the end of the book, which follows Peter Carey and his son on their trip to Japan, the father and son watch a DVD of Totoro (Studio Ghibli) with a Japanese friend. The Japanese friend pauses the movie at the scene where the family are moving into a country home, and points out that all Japanese people would understand that this story is spiritual because there is a well in the garden of the home. I had a moment of realisation. A ripple of understanding and comprehension. Oh, yeah, I had seen many wells in Japanese culture, pop-culture, movies and books, both modern and historical.

I started raking through my brain to locate specific memories of wells. Ringu, the most obvious and terrifying. I have not seen the movie. I have read the book. While very pregnant. It scared the shit out of me. I believe the story in the book, by Koji Suzuki, is a little different from the film, but the basic idea is similar.

The book I am currently reading, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami, also contains one very interesting sub-story and the story of the main character, which both take place inside, or down wells. One is horrific, where a soldier is thrown down a well, and the other is that the main character is only able to access his energetic self deep inside a very dark and damp well. I actually haven’t finished the book yet. But, it is a wonderful tale, as are all of Murakami’s books that I have read.

So, why does a well, a seemingly utilitarian device for retrieving water from the earth, carry so much other meaning in Japanese culture? I did some reading and discovered the story of Banchou Sarayashiki, a Japanese folk tale about Okiko, a women who was tossed down a well, for rejecting the advances of a samurai. I read quite a few different versions of the tale. One that occurred at Himeji Castle, and in which Okiko was a servant. There were other versions, happening in alternate settings, but with the same premise. A troubled or scorned woman who can not rest in death, so returns to haunt the well.

There is even a ukiyo-e print of Okiko by Katsushika Hokusai. It is a very famous and well recognised image. The copy I have used in the photo is credited to Wikipedia.

This moment, an aha moment, in the bath, reading a book, illustrated to me the depth of difference and richness of Japanese culture. It is so far reaching and so multi-layered. I feel like I could read forever, travel there forever and still be in the dark, with little understanding. Can a gaijin ever truly understand Japan?

3 thoughts on “Well, well, well…. Japanese wells, actually

  1. As a traveler to a new culture, I find not even many decades can completely close that gap of understanding. However, your willingness to dive into all the stories and myths will certainly go a long way. Your mini-history into the legends of the well is fascinating and I am looking forward to reading some of the books you recommended.

  2. I am curious about how a well works in a Japanese garden and how a well is seen in Japanese culture. When I search the internet I find your blog. I follow your blog so I can read more, so I hope I do not startle you. I hope you can introduce me a few books about wells if you already know.

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