Well, well, well…. Japanese wells, actually

Hokusai's woodblock print of Sarayashiki. The House of Broken Plates.

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. The book follows Peter Carey and his son on their trip to Japan. At the end of the book, 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. He 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. 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 do Japanese wells, 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 emerging from a Japanese well, 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.

Leave a Reply