Neko Musume – Cat Daughter

Neko_Musume_Old_and_New

Translated and Sourced From Ansei Zakki, Gegege no Kitaro DVD Magazine, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

Part Cat / Part Human, the Neko Musume are interesting and unique creatures in Japan’s pantheon. A different animal altogether from the shape-changing bakeneko, Neko Musume are mixed-race children that show both traits of their parentage.

What Does Neko Musume Mean?

The kanji for Neko Musume is (almost) completely straight forward. 猫 (neko; cat) + 娘 (musume; daughter). Right there in the name you can see that Neko Musume are the daughters of cats.

The only twist is that the term “musume” can just as easily refer to young girls as daughters. Like many familiar titles in Japanese, they distinguish both age and blood ties. This usage is not as common in modern Japanese, but was much more common during the Edo period from whence the Neko Musume sprang.

Misemono Neko Musume

Misemono Bear Daughter

No photos exist of the original Neko Musume, but this is a similarly exhibited girl known as the Bear Daughter, from this site

Of all of Japan’s yokai, the Neko Musume might have the oddest beginning. The term can be traced back to a particular exhibit at a particular Misemono Show in Asakusa during the 1700s.

Misemono Shows (Seeing Things) were popular from the Horyoku to the Meiwa era (1751-1771). Simply put, they were a combination of American freak shows and “Believe it or Not” exhibitions. Skilled crafters presented yokai artifacts like kappa mummies and oni skulls, along with historical relics and strange artifacts. The original “Fiji Mermaid” exhibited by P.T. Barnum was a product of these shows. There were also sideshow performers like jugglers, acrobats, and fire eaters. And then there were the human “misemono,” often people born with birth defects who were exhibited under outrageous names and with fictional backstories.

One of these was the Neko Musume, exhibited in Asakusa during this time. Reaching a height of popularity around 1769, nothing is known about the true identity of this original Neko Musume. There are no known pictures. Accounts state that her appearance was remarkable—she looked exactly like the human/cat hybrid she claimed to be. Whether this was simply an uncanny appearance, the result of birth defects, clever prosthetics and make-up, or some combination of them all is not known. But the Neko Musume was a popular and startling attraction at her booth in Asakusa.

Misemono Bear Daughter Front

Another photo of the Bear Daughter from this site

With the fading of the Misemono Shows in the 1780s, the Neko Musume disappeared from history—at least for a while.

Edo Period Neko Musume

Shungyosai_Name-onna_Neko Musume

Neko Musume appeared a few short decades later, in 1800 when the kaidan collection Ehon Sayoshigure (絵本小夜時雨; Picture Book of a Gentle Rain on a Late Autumn Evening) was published. One of the stories in the collection was called Ashu no Kijo (阿州の奇女; The Strange Woman of Ashu). It told the tale of the household of a rich merchant, who had a daughter with a strange habit of licking things. Her tongue was rough like a cats. Rumors arose as to the nature of her parentage, and she was given the nickname of Neko Musume. The same story was told later in 1830 in the satirical Kyoka Hyakki Yakyo (狂歌百鬼夜興; Poems of the Night Parade of 100 Demons) but instead of Neko Musume the girl with the strange habit was called Name Onna (舐め女; Licking Girl).

Another Edo period publication called Ansei Zakki (安政雑記; Miscellaneous Notes on Ansei) has a story of a Neko Musume. This one is particularly noteworthy, as the Ansei Zakki was not a kaidan collection but a diary collecting interesting political and historical facts of the time. The following is presented as a true story.

The Story of the Cat Daughter (From Miscellaneous Notes on Ansei)

In the 3rd year of Kae (1850) in the Ushigome district of Yokotera machi (modern day Shinjuku, Tokyo) there lived a mentally disabled girl named Matsu. Ever since she was a child, she had the strange habit of dragging the discarded heads and guts of fish from the garbage and eating them. She was exceedingly nimble, and would scurry along the hedges and walkways like a cat, trapping mice and eating them.

Because of her cat-like nature, she gathered nicknames like Neko Kozo (猫小僧; Cat Kid) and Neko Bozu (猫坊主; Cat Priest). Many speculated on her nature, wondering if she was suffering for some deeds in her past life, or if the essence of a cat had mingled with her own life essence as a baby resulting in this remarkable girl.

Her mother worried about her eccentric behavior and summoned doctors and prayed to gods to help her daughter. None could find the cause or cure. At her wits end, she tried to beat the cat out of her daughter, but to no avail. All hope lost, her mother shaved her daughters head and sent her to be a nun, hoping to expunge whatever past sin had made her a monster. But this didn’t help a bit. The cat daughter still sucked the organs of fish and continued her eccentric behavior. She was expelled from the nunnery and sent back home.

Matsu was relentlessly bullied by the other children in her neighborhood. The children chased after her, but because she was nimble as a cat she would escape by flying over the rooftops. No one could touch her. And she was popular amongst the adults for clearing out any rat infestations and keeping the neighborhood clean. Eventually, her mother saw the value in her strange daughter and started renting her out as a rat catcher to her neighbors. For a sen, the cat daughter would crawl under their houses or into their garbage piles and feast on all of the rats.

Showa Period Neko Musume

Kamishibai Neko Musume

In 1936, Neko Musume was revived by Shigeo Urata, one of the pioneers of kamishibai (paper theater) storytelling. Kamishibai was a popular pre-war entertainment, where itinerant storytellers wandered from town to town delivering chapters of the latest adventures of popular characters. Urata’s version of the Neko Musume took the form of a Buddhist morality story—a tale of karmic cause-and-effect. In his story, there is a father whose occupation is making cat-skin shamisen. His soul bears the weight of all the cats that he has killed, and his daughter is born as a strange cat/human hybrid. Her eyes are bright and sharp and her ears are pointed and stand up on her head. Like the other Neko Musume, she chases and eats mice, scampers across the roof like a cat, and even speaks in a cat’s voice.

The Neko Musume story was popular enough to spawn imitators like the Tokage Musume (トカゲ娘; Lizard Daughter) and the Hebi Musume (蛇娘; Snake Daughter). With these later characters the Buddhist moral lesson was lost, and they became just cheap entertainment. In 1937, the police began to censor kamishibai performers under the Public Morals law. The popular Neko Musume character was targeted as the origin of these girl/animal hybrid stories.

Manga Neko Musume

Neko_Musume_Suhiji_Koku

Shigeru Mizuki started his career working as an illustrator and writer for kamishibai, and worked on several of these original series including Neko Musume and the early incarnation of Hakaba Kitaro. In the post-war period, kamishibai struggled to survive as an art form and eventually gave way to mass-market printing and the emerging manga industry. When Mizuki moved from kamishibai to creating his own series for the fledgling kashihon (rental manga) market, he brought several characters with him.

His 1958 kashihon version of Neko Musume followed the kamishibai tales, portraying Neko Musume as a horror character in the series Kaiki Neko Musume (怪奇猫娘; Bizarre Tales of the Cat Daughter). The half human / half cat girl named Midori was cursed. Her father had killed a giant black cat, and the cat’s curse fell upon the man’s daughter causing her to be born as a monster. Like Kitaro himself, this version of Neko Musume crawled out of her mother’s tomb, as her mother had died while pregnant.

Kaiki Neko Musume Shigeru Mizuki

In the early 1960s Mizuki started to have some success with his version of Hakaba Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro). He introduced a prototype of Neko Musume—a cute girl named Neko (寝子; Sleeping Child) that Kitaro met at a singing completion. Her cat-like, half-yokai nature is revealed later. This was her only appearance in that series.

In the mid-1960s, Mizuki was hired by Shonen Magazine to produce a more child-friendly version of his horror comic Hakaba Kitaro. In the first series of his re-branded Gegege no Kitaro, Mizuki introduced Neko Musume into the series. She was not a main character from the start; she first appeared in a story called Nezumi Otoko vs. Neko Musume (猫娘とねずみ男). Kitaro brings her in for the sole reason of antagonizing the rat-like Nezumi Otoko and revealing his schemes.

Nezumi_Otoko_Neko_Musume_Attack

When Gegege no Kitaro moved to Weekly Shonen Sunday in the 1970s, Neko Musume joined the regular cast in the role of Kitaro’s girlfriend. He name was changed again, this time to Nekoko (猫子; Cat Girl) and she was given a more yokai-like appearance than her previous incarnations. As an interesting contrast, this version wasf not a yokai, but a human with a strange disease that transformed her into a cat whenever she saw fish or mice.

Anime Neko Musume

Neko Musume History Gegege no Kitaro

Image from this site

Neko Musume appeared sporadically in the original Kitaro animated series, and didn’t become a regular character until the second series. She was called Neko Musume, instead of the Nekoko of the comics. Her personality was quite different, however. She even joined Nezumi Otoko on his money-making schemes.

It wasn’t until the 1980s Gegege no Kitaro anime that the modern version of Neko Musume was born. This animation took all the different versions of Neko Musume and made her into a single character, the half-yokai / half- human cat girl. Again was in the role as Kitaro’s sometimes girlfriend, her appearance was also mostly fixed at this time. She appeared in the familiar white blouse, red dress, and red hair ribbon. That is the Neko Musume that most of the world knows today.

Neko Musume Mizuki Shigeru RoadNeko Musume character from Mizuki Shigeru Road

Translator’s Note:

This was a fun journey, because everyone loves Neko Musume even if they don’t know much about her. Few people realize that she has roots beyond Mizuki Shigeru and his beloved comic Gegege no Kitaro, and that the Neko Musume is a legitimate yokai in her own right and not some version of the bakeneko.

I have often been asked why the Kitaro comics translated into English don’t have Neko Musume, and the truth is that she just doesn’t appear in the comics all that often. It often works that animation has different needs from comics, and just as Bluto is only a minor character in the original Popeye comics, Neko Musume is a minor character in Gegege no Kitaro. Her popularity in the cartoon eventually broadened her role in the comic, but she was never a main character like Nezumi Otoko or Medama Oyaji.

And of course, Jim Zub and Steve Cummings created their own modern, updated version of the Neko Musume in the yokai comic Wayward Volume 1: String Theory, that I write the back-up essays and Yokai Files for.

I’ve been waiting for Ayane’s true nature to be revealed in issue #8 before posting this history of the Neko Musume. Personally, I think the girl from Ansei Zakk and Ayane would have gotten along just fine.

Neko Musume Ayane Wayward

What are Hanyō?

Hanyo_Kanji

Half human. Half yokai. Hanyo have become a staple character in recent yokai comics and animation. But do they have roots in Japanese folklore?

Kuniyoshi_Kuzunoha Abe no Seimei

The answer to that is a pretty resounding no. Hanyo are almost exclusively the creation of modern comic book artists and animators. More specifically, hanyo are the creation of Takahashi Rumiko, and to a lesser extent Mizuki Shigeru. While half-human/half-yokai children do exist in Japanese folklore, they are—with few exceptions—normal human beings. Whatever it is that makes a yokai, it doesn’t carry over to their half-human children.

What Does Hanyo Mean?

Hanyo is a neologism invented by Takahashi Rumiko for her comic book Inyuyasha. She took the kanji Han (半; half) and put it next to Yo (妖; apparition)—alternately spelled hanyou in an attempt to imitate the Japanese long vowel sound—to create a word for her concept of half-yokai characters. Takahashi has created an entire mythology around yokai, with variations depending on if their mother or father was a yokai, and attempts to become a full-blood human or yokai.

Inyuyasha Hanyo

Mizuki Shigeru had earlier invented the term hanyokai (半妖怪; half-yokai) for his characters Nezumi Otoko and Neko Musume in his comic Gegege no Kitaro. In Mizuki Shigeru’s comics, the two hanyokai are in practice 100% yokai (Nezumi Otoko is over 360 years old, for example) and the term is used largely as an insult. Kitaro sometimes talks down to Nezumi Otoko for being only a hanyokai and not a true yokai. This was possibly mirroring the distaste for half-Japanese children when Gegege no Kitaro began, most of whom were the children of occupying U.S. soldiers and Japanese women.

Nezumi Otoko Neko Musume

It could also relate to Mizuki Shigeru’s theory of yokai being single-souled and humans having double-souls. Yokai being single-souled, focusing on whatever their task or motivation is—counting beans or whatever. Humans, and the other hand, were conflicted and at war with themselves. In Gegege no Kitaro, Nezumi Otoko is one of the few characters that “switches sides” between good and evil, possibly resulting from his human double-soul. But the same cannot be said for Neko Musume, who is squarely on Kitaro’s side. So this is just speculation. Maybe he just thought hanyokai sounded cool.

Half-Yokai/Half-Human in Japanese Folklore

The children of yokai and humans—and even yurei and humans—are relatively common in Japanese folklore. Almost all of these stories fall in the Magical Wife genre (I have never heard of a Magical Husband story). The stories follow a similar patter where a man performs some task/has an encounter, later a mysterious woman comes to be his wife provided he perform some condition like never speak of the previous encounter, never look in a box, etc … The couple live happily for several years, have some kids, and inevitably the husband breaks his promise and the Magical Wife leaves.

The most famous Magical Wife story is the tale of the Yuki Onna, where a snow demon comes upon two woodgatherers freezing in the forest. The Yuki Onna kills the older one, then falls in love with the younger. She eventually marries him as a human—under the condition that the husband never speak about his frozen encounter—has children and lives together many years. When the husband eventually gabs, the Yuki Onna flees, abandoning her children and spouse.

There are many, many more Magical Wife stories, like Hagoromo the Tennin and some about transformed animals and henge. There are stories where a dead woman’s yurei returns to her husband, take cares of him and bares his children, performing her wifely duties before she is able to return to the afterlife. The one thing these stories have in common is that the children from these mystical mash-ups are all normal, human children.

(The Magical Wife genre is popular in Western folktales as well, popular enough that it has its own classification under the Aarne–Thompson classification system—#402 The Animal Bride.)

The Exceptions—Kintaro and Abe no Seimei

There are always exceptions. In this case, there are two of them, although only one could really be called a hanyo or hanyokai.

Kintaro the Nature Boy is one of Japan’s most famous and popular folkloric figures. Incredibly strong even as a baby, and friends with the bears of the woods, there are multiple variations of his origins. In one of them, his mother the Princess Yaegiri became pregnant when the Red Dragon god of Mt. Ashigara sent a clap of thunder to her. This is not the most common origin for Kintaro—most stories have his mother fleeing some conflict while pregnant and giving birth in the mountains. And even then, with a Red Dragon as a father Kintaro would more properly be a hanshin, a demi-god, and not a hanyo.

Kunisada_Bando_Mitsugoro_IV_as_Kintaro

Abe no Seimei is the other exception. A real person, Abe no Seimei was a famous onmyoji ying/yang sorcerer during the Heian period. He has since passed into folklore, and it is difficult to separate the fact from the legend when it comes to Abe no Seimei. One of the legends, however, is that his mother Kuzunoha was a kitsume, a magical fox.

Nakifudo_Engi_Abe_no_Seimei

The legend states that Abe no Yasuna came upon a hunter trapping a fox. Yasuna battled the hunter and won, and set the fox free. A beautiful woman named Kuzunoha appeared to tend his wounds, and the two fell in love and married. Their child Seimei was born, who was exceedingly bright. One day, while Kuzunoha was watching chrysanthemums, a young Seimei saw a piece of fox tail poking out from her kimono. The spell broken, Kuzunoha the fox returned to the forest, leaving her son behind but granting him a piece of her magical powers. This makes Abe no Seimei the only true hanyo in Japanese folklore.

Yoshitoshi-Kuzunoha Abe no Seimei

The Children of Ubume

There is one more semi-exception. Ubume are a specialized type of yurei, who die while pregnant leading to a still-living child being born from a dead body. Ubume are ghost mothers who come back to tend for their living child, who is often trapped in a coffin buried under the earth. By some legends, the children of these ubume are special, often faster and stronger than normal humans.

The most famous ubume child is, of course, Kitaro from Gegege no Kitaro.

Translator’s Note:

I wrote this because I get asked fairly often about hanyo, mostly from fans of Inyuyasha who want to know how authentic Takahashi Rumiko’s use of Japanese folklore is. The answer is “not very.” She creates her own worlds with her own mythologies. But her creation of hanyo has proved popular enough to crop up in other comics as well, like Rise of the Nura Clan and Maiden Spirit Zakuro.

However, true human-hybrids are exceedingly rare in Japanese mythology and folklore.

Further Reading:

For more stories from Hyakumonogatari.com, check out:

The Yurei Child

What Does Yokai Mean in English?

How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

Ubume-zu – Portrait of an Ubume

Translated from Mikzuki Shigeru’s Yokai Zukan

Here we have yet another yurei portrait, but this one gives an impression of sadness instead of fear. The title of this piece is ubume (姑獲鳥), which makes a reference to a Chinese yokai that took the form of a bird. This yokai entered Japanese folklore as the spirit of a woman who had given birth, and stories are told of a ghostly woman who wanders through town carrying her child in her arms.

This image of the ubume (産女) is the one drawn by Sawaki Sushi in Hyakaizukan (百怪図巻; “The Illustrated Volume of a Hundred Demons”) and by Sekien in Gazu Hyakki Yagyō (画図百鬼夜行; “The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”). Kyosai’s painting is of the same genus. In fact, Kyosai’s painting is so similar to that of another artist, Kano Tosen’s work “Umesachi,” that it could almost be considered a reproduction.

The ubume’s clothing and hair are swept back by the wind. She covers her face with her sleeve. The whole scene is one of plaintive sorrow.

Further Reading:

Check out other yurei art from hyakumonogatari.com:

Yūrei-zu – A Portrait of a Yūrei, a Japanese Ghost

Two Tales of Ubume

Hokusai’s Manga Yurei

Translator’s Note

This is Mizuki Shigeru’s commentary on a famous painting by Meiji-era artist Kawanabe Kyosai (河鍋暁斎; 1831-1889). Known as the last great painter in the Japanese style, Kyosai was said to be the inheritor of Hokusai and the other great ukiyo-e masters, although he did not study under Hokusai.

This painting is of a traditional type of ghost known as ubume. Ubume can be written with two sets of kanji, either 姑獲鳥 or 産女. The more typical one is 産女, which translates as “birthing mother.” Ubume are said to be ghosts of women who died in childbirth, or died with their still living child in their womb who is then born from a dead mother. They wander the streets trying to buy sweets and to get care for their still living child. In still other legends their child is as dead as they are. The kanji Kyosai used to title his painting, 姑獲鳥 translates rather strangely as “bird-catching mother-in-law” and shows the Chinese origin of the name. As stated by Shigeru, the Chinese ubume can take on a bird shape.

Kyosai probably used this archaic kanji to give an allure of mystery to his work, and to show his knowledge of Chinese.

Tōfu-kozō – The Tofu Boy

Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, Yokai Jiten, Japanese Wikipedia, and other sources

On a dark and stormy night Edo night, if you should happen to turn around and see a giant baby dressed in an enormous bamboo hat and carrying a wiggly block of tofu festooned with a maple leaf, don’t panic. Despite the strange appearance, it is only Tofu Kozo, one of the most harmless of all of Japan’s bizarre yokai tribe.

Who is Tofu Kozo?

One of Japan’s most popular yokai, the name Tofu Kozo is most commonly translated as “tofu boy” or “tofu kid,” although a more literal—albeit clumsy—translation would be “tofu young Buddhist priest.” But the Buddhist associations don’t run any deeper than the name, with “kozo” being a common term for young boys in Japan.

Tofu Kozo generally appears as a small boy, or even a baby, in a giant, conical bamboo rain hat and a traditional kimono. The kimono can be plain, or highly decorated with daruma figures, red rockfish, horned owls, and taiko drums, all of which were thought to be talismans against small pox during the Edo period. As the same suggests, Tofu Kozo are never seen without a plate of tofu, which is decorated with a single maple leaf impression.

Lacking any special powers or features other than appearance, Tofu Kozo is said to wander through deserted city streets at night, or during the rain. Generally shy and timid, Tofu Kozo sometimes likes to sneak behind humans and follow them through the streets.

There is little agreement about Tofu Kozo amongst writers. Some say that there is only one Tofu Kozo, and that he is a sort of yokai prince, the son of the yokai supreme commander Mikoshi Nyudo and his wife the Rokurokubi. Some say that tofu kozo are nothing more than errand boys for the yokai, rushing back and forth on endless tasks.

From the Showa era and up, there have been accounts of Tofu Kozu as meeting people on rainy streets at night, and offering up some delicious tofu. Anyone who eats the tofu finds their body growing with mold from the inside until they die. Yokai researchers Kyougoku Natsuhiko and Yamaguchi Bintaro trace this legend as having been invented for for childrens’ books in the Showa era to give the Tofu Kozo a bit more of an edge for modern readers.

One the opposite side, in modern Japan therapists have been using Tofu Kozo as a yokai who gets bullied by other yokai, and is used in anti-bullying therapy and education.

The Origin of Tofu Kozo

Tofu Kozo has the unique status of being Japan’s first modern, city-bred yokai. Unlike other yokai that sprang from ancient and rural Japan, the Tofu Kozo has no folklore heritage, no appearances in traditional folktales or legends. He arrived fully formed suddenly during the Anei era (1772-1781), where he quickly became a popular character for picture books, kabuki performances, toys, advertisements, cookbooks, and yellow-covered kiboshi illustrated stories.

There are several theories as to the origin of Tofu Kozo. One aspect is tofu itself. The urban Edo period saw the rise of tofu as a popular food source, cheap and nutritious. One picture book of the time, Edo Meisho Zue (江戸名所図会) “Collection of Pictures of the Famous Places of Edo” by Hasegawa Settan, shows tofu dealers wearing the iconic conical bamboo hat as they travel the streets back and forth with their wares. Other illustrations from the period show yokai like tanuki and kappa carrying tofu, and it is speculated that some enterprising tofu dealer might have created Tofu Kozo as an advertising character for their shop, only to see the character’s popularity run away from them.

Mizuki Shigeru gives the location of Tofu Kozo as Satsuma province, modern day Kagoshima prefecture, although the character is seen all over Japan. During the Edo period, when the 100 candle storytelling game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai was popular, game players and storytellers were always on the lookout for new yokai stories to tell, and it is likely that the legend of Tofu Kozo was created and expanded upon during numerous storytelling sessions.

The first known print appearance of Tofu Kozo is in the 1777 kiboshi illustrated book “Bakemono Shiuchi Hyoban-ki” (妖怪仕内評判記; “Commentary on Notable Events of the Yokai”), written by Koikawa Harumachi. A few years later in 1782, he appeared in a popular tofu cookbook called “Tofu Hyakuchin” (豆腐百珍; “The 100 Curiosities of Tofu”) by Hitsujun Ka. The character continued to be popular through the Meiji era.

The Many Faces of Tofu Kozo

Because there is no traditional origin for Tofu Kozo, artists have depicted him in varying ways over the years. Early descriptions describe him as having an enormous head, like an overgrown baby. Koikawa Harumachi described him this way in “Bakemono Shiuchi Hyoban-ki,” and the artist Kitao Masayoshi even named him Ogashira Kozo, meaning “Big Head Boy,” in his 1787 picture book “Bakemono Chakutōchō” (夭怪着到牒). For a short time, it was popular to draw Tofu Kozo as having only one eye, but this fad soon faded and by 1853 Tofu Kozu was drawn looking like a normal young boy, as seen in the illustrated book “Kyoka Hyakumonogatari” (狂歌百物語).

An obvious relative of Tofu Kozo is Hitotsume Kozo, meaning the One-Eyed Boy. Although Hitotsume Kozo is an older, more traditional yokai, over the years the two have come to resemble each other as their stories and appearances merged. This has caused researchers to postulate that they are the same yokai. But while they have had obvious influences on each other—and are depicted as cousins in many modern yokai stories—they are generally considered to be separate characters.

Two Tales of Ubume

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

The name Tsukiji nowadays brings to mind a bustling fish market in Tokyo, but it was not always so.  In the olden days, the area known as Tsukiji was packed with temples, mostly belonging to the Honkan-ji temple complex. .  The area was also covered in cemeteries.

Along the banks of the Sumida River that flows near Tsukiji, there were also stands selling fresh fish and the sweet sake for children known as amazake.  In one story, late every night a woman clutching a child would come to a certain amazake dealer to buy the sweet sake from him, which she would then give to her child to drink.  The sake dealer, sensing something mysterious about this woman, followed her from his stall one night and watched her as she made her way towards the main hall of the temple, where she disappeared like a blown-out candle. When she vanished, the sake dealer could hear the cry of a baby coming from somewhere in the cemetery. Tracking the sound to a freshly-dug grave, the sake dealer enlisted the help of some others to dig up the grave,   and when opening the coffin discovered a crying baby nestled in the arms of its mother’s corpse.  So it is said.

I heard this scary story many times when I was a child.  And of course, there are many variations of the same story.   Kaidan of the child-bearing yurei known as ubume are very old, and yet the story is still widely told in modern times.  The basic ingredients of the story have unaltered even as the legend has passed through the years.  The ubume legend first appeared in the 12th century kaidan collection called Konjyaku Monogatari, and it is that story I shall relate to you next.

The 17th scroll of the Konjyaku Monogatari is a kaidan scroll, full of ghost legends and monster stories.  This particular story is Number 43 from the 17th scroll; the Tale of the Bravery of Urabe Suetake.

Urabe Suetake was a retainer of that legendary figure Minamoto no Yorimitsu.   More than just a retainer, however, Suetake was one of the Shiten-nō, the Four Guardian Kings whose legend would grow to almost the same size as Yorimitsu’s himself.

One this occasion, Yorimitsu and his retainers had made camp near a river-crossing in the old province of Mino (modern day Gifu prefecture).  As was common at the time, the soldiers whiled away the night telling weird stories around the campfire, until one man mentioned that this very river crossing was supposed to be the home of an ubume.  The legend, it said what that a woman appeared holding a weeping child, and she would plead anyone attempting to ford the river to take the child from her and save its life.   Anyone foolish enough to accept the burden would find that child becoming heavier and heavier in their arms, until they were drug under the water and drowned.

After hearing this story, all of Yorimitsu’s men were far too frightened to cross the river, but Suetake just laughed and said that he didn’t believe in such nonsense.

“I shall cross the river myself.  Right now!” he shouted boldly.

Standing up and preparing to make his way towards the haunted river, he snatched up an arrow and said he would place it on the far bank as testament to his deed.

There were three men in the camp who decided that they would not be satisfied with the evidence of the arrow.  After all, he could just fire it across the river!  So after Suetake had left, the used the cover of the darkness to silently follow him and to bear witness to his deed.

When the arrived, Suetake had indeed crossed the river and placed the arrow, and was now mid-way through his return trip.  Suddenly, from the darkness they heard the voice of a young woman, and the unmistakable cry of a baby.  The woman appeared next to Suetake, and begged him to receive her baby and carry it safely across the river for her.  In spite of the danger, Suetake bravely received the child and started for the shore.  With each step, Suetake’s burden grew heavier, but with his great strength he persevered and it was soon obvious that he would reach his destination.

Behind him, the woman screamed in desperation, begging Suetake to return her child to her, but Suetake refused her cries and continued on until he reached the river shore.  From there, he headed back to camp with the baby still bundled in his arms.

When Suetake arrived in camp, he proudly opened the bundle to show the ubume’s child as evidence of his great deed.  Inside, however, there was no baby. Just a mass of wet leaves bundled together in the rough shape of a human child.

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