Onikuma – Demon Bear

Onikuma Mizuki Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

What walks on its hind legs like a human, is covered in fur, and hauls off horses in the middle of the night to eat? If you answered Onikuma, the Demon Bear, then you are definitely up on your Japanese yokai.

What Does Onikuma mean?

The name onikuma is broken down into two kanji 鬼(oni; demon, ogre) + 熊(kuma; bear). It’s an unusual name for a yokai of this type—the vast majority of magical animal yokai use some variation of bake-, like the bakekujira, or bakeneko. I have no idea why this isn’t called a bakeguma, but it just goes to show that folklore doesn’t follow any rules. A monster bear comes tromping through your town, you get to name it whatever you please.

In this case the word “oni” doesn’t mean that this is a half-oni bear. It’s just used as a descriptive term, meaning this is one big, tough bear.

The Legend of the Onikuma

Shunsen Oniguma Ehon Monogatari

Onikuma come from Kiso province (modern day Nagano prefecture). They are a fairly obscure yokai, and one of the few known depictions of them is from the Ehon Hyakumonogatari (1841). Like almost all magical animal yokai, the onikuma is a bear that has lived an exceptionally long life and has transformed into a yokai.

Onikuma have no special powers other than walking on their hind legs like humans, and being exceptionally strong. Legends say an onikuma can move rocks that 10 men together can’t push. There are still some rocks in odd places around Nagano prefecture that are rumored to have been put there by onikuma, since they are far too large for a group of men to manage.

Their favorite food is horse. They are rarely seen, but sometimes sneak into villages at night to carry off horses by their forelegs, which they then devour in their caves.

Hunting the Onikuma

A legend says that a group of villagers once hunted and killed an onikuma. They were sick of their horses being carried off, and tracked the onikuma back to its cave lair. In preparation, they carved long spears from massive trees, and placed fresh meat as bait in front of the onikuma’s cave. When it came out for its supper, the villagers attacked with their long spears, killing it. They took the carcass back to their village where they stretched and tanned the hide. It was said to be big enough to cover the floor of an entire large room.

Henge or Kaiju?

In Hokkaido, instead of transformed animals the term “onikuma” is used for giant bears who have killed and eaten humans. In his book Mujyara, Mizuki Shigeru makes the case that perhaps the onikuma is not a henge-type transforming animal like bakeneko, but just a monstrous bear and should be considered a kaiju (monster) –type yokai.

Translator’s Note:

Onikuma comes by request for reader Michael Goldstein who runs the blog Yokai Composed. It’s one of those yokai where there really isn’t too much to tell—it’s a giant, horse-eating bear. There are quite a few yokai like that, where there is only one story and not much other folklore. Still, demon bears are always cool.

Further Reading:

For more magical animal tales, check out:

Bakeneko – The Changing Cat

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults

Iriomote Oyamaneko – The Iriomote Great Mountain Cat

Mizuki Shigeru in Rabaul

Mizuki Shigeru in Rapaul

Translated and Sourced from Showa: A History of Japan, Remembering the war in New Guinea, and Other Sources

Mizuki Shigeru is Japan’s most famous living manga artist, and the greatest modern scholar and writer on Japanese folklore and yokai. But he wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for a small tribe of Tolai villagers on Rabaul, on the island of New Guinea.

Mizuki Shigeru in WWII

During WWII, like many young men Mizuki Shigeru was drafted into the Army. As great an artist as Mizuki Shigeru is, he was a very poor soldier. And this is what probably saved his life. Because of his poor abilities as a soldier, he was initially assigned to a non-combat position in the bugle corp. But he hated playing the bugle, and in what he describes as one of the worst mistakes of his life, requested a transfer. He was sent to the front in Rabaul as a private in the 229th Infantry Regiment of the 38th Division.

Mizuki Shigeru Soldier

He was constantly being smacked around by his superior officers for slacking off, and being sent on guard duty as punishment. One night when he was stationed far away on guard duty, the Allies attacked and his entire unit was wiped out. Only Mizuki Shigeru survived. Alone and on the run, he had his first encounter with the natives of New Guinea. And it wasn’t a friendly encounter. He was attacked by villagers who most likely planned to turn him into the Allies.

After a harrowing escape, he made his way to a Japanese base, where he was treated as a deserter. Assigned to a unit for a Suicide Charge, his life was saved again by a terrifying case of malaria. While being treated, his hospital was bombed and he lost his arm.

Mizuki Shigeru and Topetoro

While he was recovering from malaria and his lost limb, Mizuki Shigeru would often go for walks, dodging Allied strafing attacks. One walk he found a Tolai village tribe. They were cooking dinner, and Mizuki was so hungry he just sat down and started eating with them.

Here’s how Mizuki described it himself in an interview.

“Villagers used to live in a nice spot on top of the hills. Australian [planes] did not attack their villages. I used to visit their villages quite often. But when I went to their place, [Allied] planes used to appear in the sky. Then the villagers told me to go back to my camp. In fact, when I was walking alone on the trail, I was often strafed by the planes. I was wondering why they shot at me. They said that even if only one man was walking, the pilot could see him. They shot at me even when I was alone. Then I tried to be careful not to attract their attention. But they did not shoot villagers. So Japanese were hiding in holes. The Japanese killed a village chieftain, so villagers did not like us. But personally, I made good friends with them. When I first visited a village, I saw an old woman and I smiled at her, and she smiled back. She welcomed me. But I think now that she just sympathized with me, because I had only one arm. Now I think she just wanted to give me some food or something. Her name was Ikarian. “

Mizuki continued visiting Ikarian and her children, the boy Topetoro and the girl Epupe. He loved their lifestyle, their connection with the spirits and nature, and most of all their Shin Shin dance rituals. With the Tolai people, he found the yokai paradise he always dreamed of.

Rapaul Shinshin Dance

The Tolai accepted Mizuki as one of their own. They called him “Paul,” after one of the names in the Bible left behind by Christian missionaries, and he referred to them as “The People of the Forest.” The Tolai saved his life, keeping him supplied with food to make his body strong during bouts of malaria that killed his fellow soldiers. Epupe in particular loved Mizuki, and even tried to interfere in one of the many beatings Mizuki received from his superior officers. “Paul is Number One!” she shouted angrily in her broken English, not realizing how lowly Mizuki actually was amongst his own people.

Mizuki Shigeru Rapaul Showa Shi

He relationship with the Tolai was so close he almost deserted at the end of the war to go and live with them. Ikarian, Topetoro, and Epupe made him a garden patch, and were planning to build him a house.

“I started visiting her village more often, and I became like a member of her family. They looked after me well. They gave me fruit, and when I was sick in bed with malaria, they came to see me in the camp. When the war finished, they told me to run away from the army and come to live in their village. They make gardens, and their gardens are ready for harvesting very quickly. They told me that they would make a garden for me and build a house for me. They said they would look after me. So they told me to live with them. Ikarian told me to escape from the army. They were so keen. As I used to go to their village many times and had seen their life style, which looked very easy, much easier than the life in Japan. I used to think that village life was nice. And they were so keen to persuade me to escape from the army. I thought that it was not a bad idea. I thought I would not have to work so much. I could stay in bed all the time. I seriously thought about leaving the army there.”

Mizuki Shigeru Rapaul Shinshin Dance 2

Mizuki seriously considered their offer, and consulted with an army surgeon.

“I talked with an army surgeon. I sought his advice, explaining about the villagers’ invitation. He was very surprised. He was too annoyed to answer my question, but told me that I should see my parents in Japan first; then I could decide what to do. I followed his advice and went back to Japan.”

Along with visiting his parents, the surgeon told Mizuki Shigeru that his arm was not properly healed. The battlefield amputation was flawed (actually performed by a dentist), and he would need to go to a proper hospital in Japan or he could die. Mizuki left his Tolai family with a promise to return in seven years and live out his life in New Guinea. But other things got in the way of his promise.

“But when I went back, Japan was so chaotic under the rule of MacArthur. I had no time to think about returning to Rabaul. I had to live in Japan.”

Mizuki didn’t keep his promise. Life in post-war Japan was hard, and success constantly eluded him. He spent months in a veteran’s hospital waiting for surgery for his arm, and tried his hand at many trades from black market rice dealer to fish monger. Returning to his true love—art—he got work as a kamishibai artist and later transitioned to comic books. After twenty years in Japan, and many failures, Mizuki achieved success as a manga artist.

When his life and finances were finally stable, Mizuki returned to Rabaul and found his old friend Topetoro. His Tolai family had always been waiting for him, and kept his garden and house exactly as promised. Mizuki’s return was a cause for celebration, and the Tolai again performed the Shin Shin dance for him that he so loved.

While Mizuki never did move to live amongst the Tolai, over the following years he would return many times. The boy Topetoro became his lifelong friend.

The Rabaul Comics

Mizuki Shigeru Topepo Rapaul

Mizuki Shigeru has always treasured his time among the Tolai, and written several comics about Rabaul. Some of these are war comics, like Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, An Account of the War in Rabaul by Mizuki Shigeru (Mizuki Shigeru no Rabauru Senki), and the touching Account of War from Father to Daughter (Mizuki Shigeru no Musume ni Kataru Otosan no Senki) that he wrote for his daughter Etsuko.

A film version was made of his time during the war in Rabaul, called The Noble Death Witnessed by Kitaro (Kitaro Ga Mita Gyokusai).

Mizuki Shigeru Rapaul Movie

He honored his friendship with Topetoro with the comic Fifty Years with Topetoro (Topetoro Tono 50 Nen)and wrote an extensive account of his time on Rabaul—both during the war and after—in Showa: A History of Japan.

Artifacts of New Guinea

Mizuki Shigeru Rapaul Mask Collectionjpg

Mizuki Shigeru not only loved the people and lifestyle, he also loved the yokai of New Guinea. Over the years he compiled a vast collection of New Guinea masks, statues, and artifacts. He made recordings of the songs and dances of the Tolai, and displayed his collection in his home in what was called the Natural History Room by his family. When things were stressful at work, Mizuki would go into his room, play the sounds of New Guinea and drift away in his mind to life among the Tolai, and his friend Topetoro.

Many of Mizuki’s New Guinea artifacts are now displayed in the Mizuki Shigeru Memorial Museum in his hometown of Sakaiminato, Tottori.

In 2003, the people of New Guinea honored Mizuki Shigeru’s long relationship with the Tolai by inaugurating Mizuki Shigeru Road in Rabaul.

Preorder Showa: A History of Japan

You can read all about Mizuki Shigeru’s adventures on Rabaul and life amongst the Tolai—and much, much more—in Showa: A History of Japan.

The first volume is available for pre-order on amazon.com (and probably other places as well).

Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan

Translator’s Note:

Mizuki Shigeru’s adventures amongst the Tolai was one of my favorite parts of translating Showa: A History of Japan. Mizuki’s time on Rabaul is both terrifying and touching, and I often found myself getting a bit weepy mid-translation because I was so caught up in the story. It’s pretty powerful.

I was inspired to write this when I found this picture of Mizuki in New Guinea on this blog— the first photograph of this time I have ever seen. Maybe the only one publically available. I looked around but couldn’t find any others. I wanted to post the picture, and figured I better write an article to give it context for those who haven’t yet read Showa: A History of Japan.

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults


Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

Legends of a Great White Whale usually bring to mind Moby Dick, but the white of this whale is the color of its bones. For bones are all you can see of the Bakekujira—a massive, skeletal baleen whale that appeared and disappeared under mysterious circumstances once of the coast of Japan. Is it a monster? Is it a ghost? Is it a god? No one really knows for sure.

What Does Bakekujira (化鯨) Mean?

Bakekujira’s name is the same as many magical animals in Japanese folklore, with a difference of nuance. For most bake- creatures (bakeneko, bakenezumi, etc … ) the kanji 化 (bake; change) refers to a transformation, the ability to shift from one form to another. In Bakekujira—化 (bake; change) +鯨 (kujira; whale)—bake does not refer to a transformation. It just sounds scary and bizarre. This is one instance where translating bakekujira as “ghost whale” or “goblin whale” instead of “transforming whale” would be perfectly appropriate.

Inland Whaling2 Ukiyoe

The Tale of the Bakekujira

One rainy night, something massive and white appeared off the coast of Okino Island, Shimane prefecture. Fishermen from the village watched it get closer and closer, and finally decided to take a rowboat out and see what it was. From its size, they knew it must be some sort of whale, but no one had seen a whale like that before. As they rowed out their boat, they saw the waters of the ocean glimmer with thousands upon thousands of fish, the likes of which they had never seen.

As they neared the white whale, one of the fisherman threw his harpoon and it passed through the mass of white unnoticed. Their vision obscured by the pounding rain, the fishermen finally got a good look at the monster—it was the skeleton of a great baleen whale, without an ounce of skin nor meat on it. But it was moving and alive.

The men were terrified, even more so because the ocean was writhing with unknown fish, and the skies were filled with strange birds. In the distance they saw an island that hadn’t been there before, as if they had rowed into some mysterious country. Then suddenly the vision ended, and the massive bakekujira—for that is what they called it—retreated back to the open sea as quickly as it had come.

When the fishermen went back to shore, they speculated that it might have been the ghost of a whale killed in a hunt or some strange god. Whatever it was, the bakekujira was never seen again.

The History of the Bakekujira

That’s it. There is that one story of the one appearance of the bakekujira, and that is the sum total of knowledge on the boney beastie. Anything else you read about the bakekujira is pretty much just made up to try and fill in the gaps.

In fact, for being so well-known in the modern world, the bakekujira is a limited and obscure yokai. It wasn’t important enough to be added to Toriyama Sekien’s numerous Edo-period yokai collections; there aren’t any ukiyo-e prints or kaidan collections including the bakekujira—at least not that I could find when I was researching for this article. In fact, the first mention I could find of the bakekujira was from Mizuki Shigeru, whose cool character design seems largely (solely?) responsible for the bakekujira being known today.

But Japan does have a long history of whale gods and venerated bones, to which the bakekujira fits in nicely. So allow me to segue to another aspect of Japanese folklore—the Whale Cults of Japan.

Hyochakushin – The Drifting Ashore God

Whale God Ukiyoe

In pre-seafaring Japan—before Samurai William brought the secret of keels and ocean-going vessels—fishermen were limited to the coastal waters their small ships could take them too. They eked out a subsistence living harvesting what was in reach. But every now and then, the oceans would deliver a bounty beyond imagination.

Whales would sometimes come inland, or beach themselves on the shore. Fishermen hunted these whales in a practice called Passive Whaling, using harpoons to kill the whale that was trapped in the shallows. This was a rare and auspicious event—a single whale provided vast amounts of meat and resources for the village, and seemed like a gift from the gods. And the whale itself was only a piece of the bounty. Whales often came in following larges schools of fish, so their arrival meant an abundance of sea life beyond the leviathan itself. The arrival of a whale could save a village teetering on the edge of starvation and ruin. It was mana from the oceans.

Passive Whaling Ukiyoe

Like modern Cargo Cults, the villagers could not understand from where or why the whale came in to shore. They only knew that a whale meant wealth and rare full stomachs. Whales were considered to be embodied deities (神体; shintai), and whale religions sprang up in coastal villages, called Hyochakushin (漂着神; Drifting Ashore God) or Yorikami Shinkyo (寄り神信仰; The Religion of the Visiting Kami).

The Whale and Ebisu

These original whale cults were primitive. The people praying generally had one request—send more whales. But in time they evolved. Like many religions, the Whale Cults in Japan were built on a portion of respect and gratitude and a portion of fear. Because whaling—even Passive Whaling—was a dangerous operation, some whale religions also saw in whales the ability to be malevolent gods, and prayed to appease their spirits and assuage their wrath. Bad storms of poor catches could mean an angry whale god, and nobody wanted that.

In time, these whale religions merged with another, more popular deity, the god of abundance Ebisu. Whales were first thought to be emissaries of Ebisu, and then became considered to be an incarnation of Ebisu himself. Because whales were thought to have the power to control fish, fishermen began carrying images of the god Ebisu as a whale to give them the same fish-controlling powers.

Kujira Jinjya – Whale Shrines


When you have feasted on the body of a god, it only makes sense to give the leftovers a proper burial. After stripping the body of everything useful, villagers buried the whale carcass in mounds called Kujira Tsuga (鯨塚; whale mounds). Kujira Tsuga were capped with monuments of some sort, varying from carved stone tablets to pagodas to small wooden or rock shrines. Often these Kujira Tsuga were created in memory of some particularly bountiful harvest, and annual festivals where held like the Daihyo Tsuifuku (大漁追福; Big Catch Memorial Service). Or people prayed to the Kujira Tsuga for Kaijyo Anzen Kito (海上安全祈祷; Prayers to Ensure Safety at Sea).

Places where passive whaling was more prevalent also had Kujira Haka (鯨墓; whale graveyards) and Kujira Ishibumi (鯨碑; whale stone monuments). There are about 100 known whale graveyards throughout Japan.

Many Kujira Tsuga have their own legends and myths. In Miyagi prefecture, Kesenmema city, Karakuwa town, a legend is told of a ship foundering in the storm that was approached by two massive, white whales. The two whales swam to either side of the ship and steadied it, guiding it into port before sailing away. From that day forward, the citizens of Karakuwa down abandoned their ancient custom of whale eating.

The legend is attached to the MIsaki Shrine in Karakuwa, but the connection is not exactly accurate. Misaki Shrine is an old Kujira Tsuga, raised over a whale corpse and topped with a stone monument expressing gratitude for the whale’s death.

In Ehime prefecture, Seiyo city, Akehama town there are three known Kujira Tsuga, one of which is high up in the mountains. The shrine is ancient, and overlooks the ocean. It now sits along the national highway route making it much more accessible. Hauling up that carcass must have been quite the event.

On June 21st, 1837 (Tenpo 8th), a massive whale came to shore directly underneath this shrine. This was during the Great Tenpo Famine, and the whale saved the entire area from starvation. The villagers gave the whale a posthumous Buddhist name, meaning roughly “The Great Whale Scholar of the Universe who Brings Health.” That was extremely rare at the time, as posthumous Buddhist names was an honor reserved for great lords. The shrine is still honored by the villagers today

Whalebone Tori Gates

Whalebone Tori Japan

By the Edo period, Japan had become a seafaring nation and created a whaling industry and culture. Whaling Associations established and maintained official Whale Shrines in coastal areas, many of which still exist today. Whale shrines were also built in Taiwan when it was under Japanese rule, usually dedicated to Ebisu.

The most dramatic of these have Whalebone Tori gates—the picturesque post-and-lintel design that signifies the presence of a kami spirit.. The oldest Whalebone Tori is in Wakayama prefecture, Taijicho town, called the Arch of Ebisu. Ihara Saikaku mentions this Tori in his book Nippon Eitaigura (日本永代蔵; Japan’s Warehouse of Eternity; 1688). The tori is probably much older, however. The newest whalebone tori is in Nagasaki, Shinkamigostocho town at the Kaido Jinjya (Shrine of the Sea). Dedicated in 1973, it was built by the Japan Whaling Association.

Nirai Kanai

In an odd and unrelated Okinawan legend, a whale dressed in a kimono was said to have brought the secrets of rice cultivation to Japan. You can read more about this in my article on Nirai Kanai.

The Curse of the Bakekujira

Island Whale Ukiyoe

There are two odd footnotes to the story of the bakekujira, that don’t really fit in anywhere else so I am sticking them on here at the end.

In the 1950s, manga artist Mizuki Shigeru was working on a kamishibai story about the bakekujira, and also eating a lot of whale meat. He suddenly came down with a terrible fever, that only stopped when he quit working on the story. He calls this the “Curse of the Bakekujira.”

In 1983, an intact whale skeleton was spotted floating off the shores of Anamizu, Ishikawa prefecture. The press jumped on the story naming it a “real-life bakekujira.”

Translator’s Note:

This article was done at the request of comic book writer Brandon Seifert, who does the incredibly cool folklore/horror comic Witch Doctor, as well as other things. If you are a folklore fan, I highly recommend his work. And look for the bakekujira to possibly pop up his boney head in one of Seifert’s upcoming comics!

Further Reading:

For more tales of ocean-going yokai, check out:

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Funa Yurei

Nirai Kanai

The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

What are Hanyō?


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.


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.


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?

Hashihime – The Bridge Princess

Mizuki Shigeru Hashihime

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.”

Segawa kikunojō no hashihime

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.

Kikugawa Eizan Hashihime Twelve Seasons of Genji

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.

Toriyama Sekien Hashihime of Uji

Toriyama’s Text:

“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

hashihime Noh

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.

Other Hashihime

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.

Further Reading:

The Hashihime is the last in my series on trivet-wearing yokai. For the rest of the trivet-wearing yokai, check out:

The Tale of the Hashihime of Uji

Ushi no Koku Mairi – The Shrine Visit at the Hour of the Ox

Gotokoneko – The Trivet Cat

Translator’s Note:

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.

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