Ubume (産女) are a type of supernatural entity, or yōkai. 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. When the person goes to look at the child in their arms, they discover it is only a bundle of leaves or large rock.
Social and cultural influence
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).
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 Jizō.
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-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.
Stories about ubume have been told in Japan since at least the 12th 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.
- 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
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