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.

Nure Onago – The Soaked Woman

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara

In Tsushima in Nagasaki prefecture, when the rain falls at night, the bakemono known as the Nure Onago appears. The Nure Onago can appear near any body of water, from a small pond to the ocean. Her entire body is drenched, and she is soaked from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.

The Nure Onago can be found in several parts of Japan. In Nuwa in Ehime prefecture, it is said that you can see her hair stretched out and floating on the surface of the ocean, and it is from there that she appears. In the Uwa district, the Nure Onago doesn’t come from the ocean, but it is said that she appears from a soaking wet mop of hair.

The Nure Onago always has a wicked smile, and laughs hideously. If by chance you hear her and, thinking she is just a regular woman amused at something, should laugh along with her, then she will attack you swiftly and without mercy.

In Kagoshima prefecture, in the cape of Tajiri where the famous festival for the god Ebisu is held, there is a similar yokai. They call her the Iso Onna (Beach Woman), and like the Nure Onago she is soaked head to foot. The Iso Onna appears anywhere there is sand, either on the actual beach or inland if there is sand. The main different between the Nure Onna and the Isa Onna is the lower half of their bodies. The Isa Onna is said to have no lower half, but instead is formed like a snake below the waist. Both the Iso Onna and the Nure Onago are types of the yokai called Nure Onna.

Most depictions of the Nure Onago show her as being nothing different than a regular human woman, dripping wet. The Nure Onago is a relative of the Hari Onna (Needle Woman) from western Japan.

Translator’s Note

Mizuki Shigeru’s depiction of the Nure Onago is quite different than most portrayals.  Mizuki’s description is more in tune with the name Nure Onna 濡女子 which means literally “Wet Woman-child” or “Soaked Woman-child.” The related Nure Onna is traditionally drawn as a snake with the head of a woman.  She is also sometimes described as carrying a small child (odd considering the lack of arms) which then turns out to be a bundle of leaves.  This story is taken directly from the Ubume legends.

Further Reading:

Read more yokai tales on hyakumonogatari.com

Inen – The Possessing Japanese Ghost

Funa Yurei

Enju no Jashin – The Evil God in the Pagoda Tree

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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