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.

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What is the White Kimono Japanese Ghosts Wear?

Translated from Japanese Wikipedia and Other Sources

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Black hair. White face. White kimono. Whisper the word Japanese ghost to anyone, and that is the image that will appear in their head. For Americans, the image generally comes from Japanese horror films where white-kimonoed girls crawl from TV sets or rise from wells. But to Japanese people, the costume of a white kimono has a more somber feel. Most likely over their lives they will wrap more than one loved one in the traditional burial garment called a kyokatabira.

Kyōkatabira – The Buddhist Robe

The white kimono that most Japanese take their final journey in is called a kyokatabira. The word is split into two terms: kyo (経) which means Buddhist sutra, and katabira (帷子) which is a light, unlined kimono worn on informal occasions, such as rising in your own house in the morning.

Katabira were traditionally made from hemp and came into fashion around the Heian period (794 to 1185). At the time, katabira were a form of underwear. They were stuffed with cotton and used to keep warm as a sort of wearable blanket. But as summer came and people shed layers, they soon learned that the simple, single-layered garment was just as comfortable in Japan’s humid and oppressive summer. These were eventually adapted for use in the bathhouse, which were called yukatabira (湯帷子). This word was later shortened to yukata, a light kimono that are still worn in Japan today— although the kanji 浴衣 is more commonly used.

The use of the white katabira is thought to have appeared around the same period, as a mix of Shinto and Buddhist tradition. The Emperor was said to wear a white kimono when performing religious rituals during the Heian period. Unlike the coarse hemp of the commoners, the Emperors garment was spun from silk and was called a byakue (白衣) meaning nothing more complicated than “white robe.” Shinto priests adopted the fashion, with a full costume called jōe (浄衣) meaning “purified robe.” Brides on their wedding days wore a white kimono called a shiromuku (白無垢) meaning “white purity.”

Buddhist priests preferred the rough hemp over the fine silks of the byakue and jōe, and took to wearing what was called kyōkatabira. As the name suggests, kyōkatabira were standard white katabira inscribed with Buddhist sutras. Kyōkatabira came to be work by Buddhist on pilgrimages as they travelled Japan.

All of these types of garments: byakue, jōe, shiromuku, and kyōkatabira; fall under the category of shiro-shozoku (白装束) meainging “white clothing.”

What is the significance of the color white? – Priests, Brides, and Corpses

I sometimes hear people say that white is the color of death in Japan, but this is a mistake. White is the color of purity.

For as long as anyone knows, white in Japan has been the color of purity, specifically ritual purity. The native religion Shinto has always been concerned with cleanliness and purity. At most Shinto shrines there is a place for you to wash yourself before entering.

Ritual purity means more than just taking a good bath, although that is a part of it. In order to be ritually pure, you must be cleansed of kegare (汚れ) meaning “impurities,” which can only be done through a serious of prescribed enigmas under the guidance of a priest. Wearing a white kimono is a visible sign of purity, and is generally done by only three classes of people; priests, brides, and corpses (or those soon to be corpses, like people commiting seppuku).

And of course yurei, Japanese ghosts.

Shinishozoku- Costume for the Dying

Around the 700s, Buddhism arrived in Japan and began to grow in popularity. Buddhism in Japan mixed with Shinto to create a unique religion quite different from its Indian origins. Over time, Shinto and Buddhism split until each oversaw a different aspect of humanity, the kami of Shinto overseeing the living and the deities of Buddhism caring for their souls in death. Buddhism slowly took over all funeral rites, which remains with way it is in Japan today.

In Buddhism, death is not the ending but just the beginning of another cycle. Appropriately, Japanese Buddhist dressed corpses as pilgrims going on their final journey, called the shidenotabi (死出の旅) meaning “the final trip to death.” The full costume for a corpse is called shinishozoku (死に装束),which means roughly “the costume for one going to death.”

A complete shinishozoku will have the corpse dressed in a kyōkatabira with sutras written on the inside and folded right-over-left in the opposite style, a tankan-the triangle-shaped headband, a zutabukuro-a small carrying bag containing ferry passage over the Sanzu river of the dead, a walking cane, and coverings for the legs, arms, and back. The final item is a string of prayer beads nestled in the hands.

What is the significance of folding the kimono right-over-left?

A common occurrence in Japan is seeing a foreigner trying on a yukata for the first time, and eliciting a room full of gasps as they innocently take the right side of the yukata and fold it over the left. I did. And I had no idea why everyone was so shocked.

I found out soon enough that the right-over-left style is reserved exclusively for corpses, Living people always—ALWAYS—fold their yukata or kimono left-over-right. But why? That, no one could tell me.

It took some digging to find the answer, but it comes back to that old Asian favorite, class distinction by clothing. Apparently in ancient China the way you folded your kimono was a visible way to show your rank. Like foot-binding and long fingernails, it was also a way to purposefully hobble yourself to show that you did not need to work for a living.

Folding your kimono left-over-right allows a greater freedom of movement, such as was required by field workers. The leisure class thumbed their noses at freedom of movement, and purposefully folded their kimono right-over-left. During the Nara period, when Chinese culture influenced Japan, this custom was taken up enthusiastically by the aristocratic classes.

Death, however, knows no distinction of rank. One of the principles of Japanese religion and folklore is that the dead are mighty, and you don’t want to offend them. So it became the custom that all dead people, no matter what they were in life, rose to the aristocratic right-over-left class and folded their kimonos that way for their final journey.

The meaning of the kyōkatabira

So the white kimono, the kyōkatabira, is much more than a simple garment. It is a statement of transformation. It shows that here, on their last journey, a person has become ritually pure in the Shinto tradition, a holy pilgrim in the Buddhist tradition, and a wealthy aristocrat in the human tradition.

Few other items of clothes so completely raise you simply buy putting them on. Of course, you have to be dead to wear it, so there is a trade-off.

The Ghost of Oyuki

For more about the origins of Japanese Ghosts, you can purchase Zack Davisson’s limited edition yomihon chapbook The Ghost of Oyuki from Chin Music Press.

The Ghost of Oyuki Chapbook

Further Reading:

Check out other death customs from hyakumonogatari.com:

What is the Triangle Headband Japanese Ghosts Wear?

Nagarekanjyou – A Death Custom

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