Ubume (産女), a Japanese yōkai, appears in folk stories and literature as an old woman or crone, with a child in her arms, imploring the passerby to hold her infant, only to then disappear. As legend has it, the weight of the child increases by degrees, until the bewitched “child” is revealed to be nothing more than a huge rock or boulder. The first version of this sort of tale was related by Urabe no Suetake, servant of Raiko.
Ubume in folklore
Typically, the Ubume asks a passerby to hold her child for just a moment and disappears when her victim takes the swaddled baby. The baby then becomes increasingly heavy until it is impossible to hold. It is then revealed not to be a human child at all, but a boulder or a stone image of Jizo.
The Shoshin’in Temple, according to scholars, is where local women come to pray to conceive a child or to have a successful pregnancy. According to Stone and Walter (2008), the origins of the temple’s legend, set in the mid-sixteenth century, concern:
- ... a modern statue of Ubume, displayed once a year in July. At this festival, candy that has been offered to the image is distributed, and women pray for safe delivery and for abundant milk. The statue, which is clothed in white robes, has only a head, torso, and arms; it has no lower half.
Ubume in literature
Stories about Ubume have been told in Japan since at least the twelfth century.
- When a woman loses her life in childbirth, her spiritual attachment (shūjaku) itself becomes this ghost. In form, it is soaked in blood from the waist down and wanders about crying, ‘Be born! Be born!’ (obareu, obareu).
Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s best-selling detective novel, The Summer of the Ubume, uses the Ubume legend as its central motif, creating something of an Ubume 'craze' at the time of its publication and was made into a major motion picture in 2005.
Ubume in art
- Iwasaka, Michiko and Barre Toelken. Ghosts And The Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends. (1994)
- Kyogoku, Natsuhiko. The Summer of the Ubume. San Francisco: Viz Media. (2009)
- Wakita, Haruko. Women in medieval Japan: motherhood, household management and sexuality. Monash Asia Institute. (2006)
- Konaki-jiji, a childlike yōkai that, like the Ubume's bundled 'infant', grows heavier when carried and ultimately takes the form of a boulder.
- Myling, an example of a similar motif in Scandinavian folklore.
- Sankai, yōkai that emerge from pregnant women
- Bush, Laurence C. (2001). Asian horror encyclopedia: Asian horror culture in literature, manga and folklore. Writers Club Press.
- Foster, Michael Dylan (2009). Pandemonium and parade: Japanese monsters and the culture of yōkai. University of California Press.
- Glassman, Hank (2001). The religious construction of motherhood in medieval Japan. Stanford University.
- Hepburn, James Curtis (1887). A Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionary. Maruya & Co.
- Joly, Henri L. (1908). Legend in Japanese art: a description of historical episodes, legendary characters, folklore, myths, religious symbolism, illustrated in the arts of old Japan. J. Lane.
- Stone, Jacqueline Ilyse; Walter, Mariko Namba (2008). Death and the afterlife in Japanese Buddhism.