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Ubume (産女) are a type of supernatural entity, or yōkai.[1] Yōkai are Japanese in origin and in Western terms can be most closely related to the idea of “ghosts”. Throughout folk stories and literature the identity and appearance of ubume varies. However, she is most commonly depicted as the spirit of a woman who has died during childbirth. Passersby will see her as a normal looking woman carrying a baby. She will typically try to give the passerby her child then disappear.[2] When the person goes to look at the child in their arms, they discover it is only a bundle of leaves or large rock.[3]

Ubume うぶめ from Bakemono no e (化物之繪, c. 1700), Harry F. Bruning Collection of Japanese Books and Manuscripts, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
An image of ubume as depicted by Toriyama Sekien, an ukiyo-e artist famous for his prints of yokai and obakemono.[citation needed]

Social and cultural influence[edit]

The yokai ubume was conceived through various means of social and religious influence. During the late Medieval period of Japan, the attitudes surrounding motherhood started to change. Rather than the infant being considered a replication of the mother and an extension of her body, the fetus started to be seen as separate from the mother. This distancing of mother and fetus caused an emphasis on the paternal ownership of the child, reducing the mother to nothing more than a vessel for male reproduction. For a mother to die in childbirth or late pregnancy soon came to be considered a sin, the blame for the death of the unborn child being placed on the mother who in a sense was responsible for the infant’s death. (Stone & Walter pg. 176).

In folklore[edit]

Originally the name for a kind of small sea fish,[4] in Japanese folklore the term is now applied to the ghost of a woman who had died in childbirth, or "birthing woman ghost".[5][6]

Typically, the ubume asks a passerby to hold her child for just a moment and disappears when her victim takes the swaddled baby.[2] 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 Jizō.[3]

Many scholars have associated the ubume with the legend of the hitobashira,[7] where a sacrificial mother and child "are buried under one of the supporting pillars of a new bridge."[6]

The Shoshin'in Temple, according to scholars,[3] is where local women come to pray to conceive a child or to have a successful pregnancy.[7] According to Stone and Walter (2008), the origins of the temple's legend, set in the mid-16th 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.[8]

In literature[edit]

Stories about ubume have been told in Japan since at least the 12th century.[7]

The early 17th-century tale collection Konjaku hyaku monogatari hyoban[citation needed] says of the ubume:

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).[8]

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'[9] at the time of its publication and was made into a major motion picture in 2005.[9]

In art[edit]

Tokugawa-era artists[5] produced many images of ubume, usually represented as "naked from the waist up, wearing a red skirt and carrying a small baby."[5]

Other illustrations of ubume are from Toriyama Sekien’s late-18th-century encyclopedia of ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, Gazu Hyakki Yagyō.[8]

See also[edit]

  • 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
  • Harpy
  • Pontianak


  1. ^ Bush (2001), p. 188
  2. ^ a b Stone & Walter (2008), p. 191
  3. ^ a b c Joly (1908), p. 15
  4. ^ Hepburn (1887), p. 705
  5. ^ a b c Joly (1908), p. 16
  6. ^ a b Stone & Walter (2008), p. 204
  7. ^ a b c Glassman (2001), p. 560
  8. ^ a b c Stone & Walter (2008), p. 192
  9. ^ a b Foster (2009), p. 230


  • 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.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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)