Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources
Nothing quite embodies the saying “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” like the Hashihime. A human woman consumed by jealousy and hatred, she transformed herself through sheer willpower—and the assistance of a helpful deity who taught her a complicated ritual—into a living demon of rage and death. A yokai from the Heian period, she is one of the most powerful and fierce creatures in Japan’s menagerie.
What Does Hashihime Mean?
With only two kanji, her name is straight-forward: 橋 (hashi; bridge) 姫 (hime; princess). But there is a secret meaning hidden inside. In ancient Japanese, the word airashi (愛らしい; pretty; charming; lovely; adorable) could be pronounced “hashi.” So “Hashihime the Bridge Princess” was also a homophone for (愛姫) “Hashihime the Pretty Princess.”
The only real question is why does such a horrible demon have such a lovely, delicate name? This is because the name predates the monster. There have been Bridge Princesses—benign deities of the water—for far longer than there have been jealous women with crowns of iron and burning torches clenched between their teeth.
Hashihime as Water Goddess
Going back into ancient, pre-literate Japan, there has long been a mythology built around bridges. Japan was—and still is—an animistic culture where nature is embodied by spirits of good and ill. The wonders of nature, like particularly large and twisted trees or odd and out of place rocks, had their own guardian deities called kami. Rivers too, especially large rivers, were the abodes of gods.
Bridges across these rivers were the proverbial double-edged sword. They allowed you to cross for commerce and trade, but they also allowed enemies in. Any bridge of significant size was believed to have guardian deities that acted as gatekeepers, letting allies in and keeping enemies out.
The guardian deities of bridges were thought to be a matched set—you had both a male and female river deity, a Bridge Prince and a Bridge Princess. Shrines dedicated along these bridges were dedicated to both equally.
Overtime, the female deity became the more popular of the pair—she was thought to be luminously beautiful and sometimes appeared in human form.
In the year 905 CE, we get one of the oldest known written mentions of the Hashihime, in a poem from the 14th scroll of the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集; Collection of Poems of Ancient and Modern Times). This is especially notable because it mentions not just any Hashihime, but the Hashihime of Uji—a legend that would come to dominate all images of this fantastic creature.
“Upon a narrow grass mat
laying down her robe only
tonight, again –
she must be waiting for me,
Hashihime of Uji”
Hashihime as Female Demon
How the transformation happened—from benign, sexy river goddess to avatar of female rage—is unknown. Most likely it happened like all folklore, organically and over time. The shrines to the Hashihime existed near bridges, and as people forgot their original purpose they began to make up new stories. Most of these stories tended to include some legend of the Hashihime as “woman done wrong.” There are old legends of a woman whose husband went off to war and never came back, and she wept by the river bank in sorrow until she was transformed into the Hashihime. Others are stories of jealousy and revenge.
“Hashihime” is the title of one of the chapters of Japan’s first work of literature, Genji Monogatari (源氏物語; The Tale of Genji) and she is mentioned several times throughout. While the Hashihime is used mostly as a metaphor, Genji Monogatari tells the story of Lady Rokujo, a woman consumed and transformed by jealousy into a monster. Lady Rokujo becomes an ikiryo, a rare creature in Japanese folklore able to release their soul—their reikon—and all of its powers while they are still alive.
While Lady Rokujo is not the Hashihime, this story of the power of a woman’s jealousy caught the Japanese imagination, and more and more similar characters started to appear in theater and song. Noh Theater in particular loved the Hashihime, and the face of the Hashihime is one of the official masks of Noh.
The Heike Monogatari and the Hashihime of Uji
The story of the Hashihime was solidified in the Heike Monogatari (平家物語; The Tale of the Heike), an epic poem handed down by oral tradition not unlike The Odyssey. Because the Heike Monogatari was told by so many storytellers over so many generations, when written language was discovered multiple, conflicting versions of the poem made it onto the printed page.
Many of these versions told a story of the Hashihime of Uji. She was a noble woman who—by conflicting accounts—either had a husband who cheated on her, or who took a second wife and paid more attention to her. The unnamed woman prayed to the Kami of Kifune for revenge, and was given a complicated ritual that would turn her into a still-living oni.
For more details and a translation of the Heike Monogatari, see The Tale of the Hashihime of Uji.
The Heike Monogatari emphasizes repeatedly than the Hashihime is a “still-living” oni. This is different from other versions of the tale, where the woman dies in the river and rises again as the Hashihime (although not as a yurei. The Hashihime is never a ghost). In Japanese folklore, death has a powerful transformative effect—many stories follow the pattern of post-death revenge. So the Hashihime of Uji being a “still-living” oni adds and extra layer of unnatural terror.
The Hashihime of Uji influenced all following interpretations of the Hashihime, and remains definitive. When Toriyama Sekien put the Hashihime in his Konjyaku Gazu Zokuhyakki (今昔画図続百鬼; The Illustrated One Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past) he specifically referred to her as the Hashihime of Uji.
“The Goddess Hashihime lives in the under the Uji Bridge in Yamashiro province (Modern day Southern Kyoto). That is the explanation for this drawing of the Hashihime of Uji.”
Kanawa – The Iron Crown
The Noh play Kanawa (鉄輪; The Iron Crown) comes from one of the versions of the Hashihime story from the Heike Monogatari. In this version, the courtly woman has a husband who takes a second wife, as was the custom at that time. The woman is overcome with jealousy about the second wife, and tries to curse and kill her. But her husband has consulted with the great yin/yang sorcerer Abe no Seimei, who arrives at the last moment to break her curse.
Abe no Seimei then constructs a katashiro, a paper amulet in the form of a human, that reflects the curse back on the first wife, transforming her into a demon. (At this part of the play the lead actor changes into the Hashihime mask). Ashamed of her appearance, the woman (now the Hashihime) flees back to the river, jealousy and revenge burning in her heart.
The Hashihime again attacks the second wife, but is beaten off my Abe no Seimei with the assistance of 30 kami spirits. The Hashihime claims she will return, and disappears.
Although she is by far the most famous, the Hashihime of Uji is not the only Hashihime. Nagarabashi bridge over the Yodogawa river in Osaka and the Setanokarabashi bridge over the Setagawa river in Sega prefecture also lay claim to their own Hashihimes.
The Hashihime Shrine
A little off the beaten path, near Uji Bridge, you can find the Hashihime Shrine. It isn’t a big place, and people might not be so eager to guide you there because of the shrines’ reputation—and what it is for.
Shrine records claim the Hashihime Shrine dates back to 646 CE, making it older than most known legends of the Hashihime of Uji. Most likely it was originally dedicated to the water goddess under the bridge, and the kami of the shrine evolved along with the legends.
The shrine is unusual in that it is essentially a divorce shrine. People come—mostly women, to be honest—to pray for freedom from difficult or unwanted attachments. This can be anything or anyone you want to be free of, but in practice most women come to pray for divorce or miscarriage.
The shrine even sells you something to help you on your way. Most Shinto shrines sell some sort of amulet, something to protect you from bad spirits. The Hashihime Shrine does too—it sells magical scissors that you can use to metaphorically cut yourself from entanglements, all without needing to transform yourself into a still-living oni bent on revenge.
The Hashihime is the last in my series on trivet-wearing yokai. For the rest of the trivet-wearing yokai, check out:
This is part 2 of the long-requested Hashihime. I translated the text from the Heike Monogatari for the first part, and this entry gives more of the history and context. The Hashihime is a favorite of mine because I have spent quite a bit of time in Uji. Uji is one of my favorite places in all of Japan. You really should go there if you are ever in Japan. It is stunningly beautiful, with century-old teashops and the magnificent Byoudoin temple. Of course, you must also visit the Uji Bridge where the Hashihime dwells and the Hashihime Shrine to pay your respects.