One of Japans "big 3" ghost stories along side popuarly told since the edo period. Along side "Yotsuya Kaidan" (Oiwa) & "Botan Dōrō." (the peony lantern.) it has been adapted countless times, tweaked and changed depending on location, the folkstory generally goes a little like this:
"There once was a beautiful maid named Okiku, who worked as a dishwasher at Himeji castle under a prestigious samurai family. The head of the which was named Ayoyama, Okiku would constantly reject this near daily proposals for marriage.
One day Ayoyama grew impatient with her rejections and decided to trick her into beleiving that she'd lost one of the families expensive, irreplacable dinner plates. (A mistake, punishable by death!) So, Aoyama hid one of the plates and called for Okiku, demanding to know where the plate went. Terrified: Okiku counted the plates:
"one... two.... three... four.... five... six... seven... eight... nine....?"
-she frantically counted them over & over, but no matter how many times, she counted and no matter where she looked, she just couldn't find the tenth plate!!! --The samurai offered to overlook the matter & forgive her - - if, she became his lover. Okiku still refused. Enraged, Aoyama had his servents tie her up and dunk her in the castles old well, binding her and torturing her. He demanded that she marry him one more time: Okiku still refused, Aoyama took her life, stabbing her with his sword and letting her fall to her death.
--It's said that Okiku became a vengeful spirit (an “Onryo.") which roamed the castle grounds, tormenting her murderer by counting to nine. On 'ten' she would instead let out a blood curdling scream which could be heard all over the castle,(Those who heard Okiku's counting would soon fall terribly ill, it was said that if you went near the well and heard her counting from one to nine, you would meet with a terribble fate.)
This continued for years until a visiting exorcist shouted "ten!!" during the countdown. Okiku’s spirit was heard to exhale a cold breath in relief: “Oh, how glad I am.” before vanishing, relieved that someone had finally found the missing plate. she was able to pass on and haunted the castle no more."
--despite the successful exorcism: stories & rumours involving Okikus spirit in and around Himeji castle lingered for centuries after, and the story became a popular subject of theatre & artworks in the edo period: Rumors about Okiku's ghost lead to a number of superstitions surrounding the well itself as well such as the chrysanthemums (which where planted in her honor) never blooming.
See also: "Okiku-Mushi."
Art sticker by Samkalensky part of my hyakki yagyo night parade of 100 demons sticker collection! Check my shop for many more! [Obviously my design was heavily inspiredby Katsushika hoikusai's famous Ukiyo-e print (from 1831) Part of the his hyakku monogatari series. ]
--And yes! before you ask Okiku IS in fact the ghost which inspired Sadako of "The Grudge" fame. (there are a few that contributed, but okikus story was said to be the main inspiration.)
This ghost should also not be confused with the haunted Okiku doll.