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A depiction of Yama-uba by Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850)

Yamauba (山姥 or 山うば?), Yamamba or Yamanba are variations [1] on the name of a yōkai [2] found in Japanese folklore.


Depending on the text and translator, the Yamauba appears as a monstrous crone, “her unkempt hair long and golden white ... her kimono filthy and tattered,” [3] with cannibalistic tendencies.[4] In one tale a mother traveling to her village is forced to give birth in a mountain hut assisted by a seemingly kind old woman, only to discover, when it is too late, that the stranger is actually Yamauba, with plans to eat the helpless Kintarō.[5] In another story the yōkai raises the orphan hero Kintarō, who goes on to become the famous warrior Sakata no Kintoki.[6]

Yamauba is said to have a mouth at the top of her head, hidden under her hair.[7] In one story it is related that her only weakness is a certain flower containing her soul.[8]

Yamauba, Hair Undone, by Hokusai
Yama-uba Nursing Kintoki, Kitagawa Utamaro 1802

Noh Drama[edit]

In one Noh drama, translated as, Yamauba, Dame of the Mountain, Komparu Zenchiku states the following:

Yamauba is the fairy of the mountains, which have been under her care since the world began. She decks them with snow in winter, with blossoms in spring ... She has grown very old. Wild white hair hangs down her shoulders; her face is very thin. There was a courtesan of the Capital who made a dance representing the wanderings of Yamauba. It had such success that people called this courtesan Yamauba though her real name was Hyakuma.[9]

The play takes place one evening as Hyakuma is traveling to visit the Zenko Temple in Shinano, when she accepts the hospitality of a woman who turns out to be none other than the real Yamauba, herself.[9]

Western literature[edit]

Steve Berman's short story, “A Troll on a Mountain with a Girl”[10] features Yamauba.

Lafcadio Hearn, writing primarily for a Western audience, tells a tale like this:

Then [they] saw the Yama-Uba,—the "Mountain Nurse." Legend says she catches little children and nurses them for awhile, and then devours them. The Yama-Uba did not clutch at us, because her hands were occupied with a nice little boy, whom she was just going to eat. The child had been made wonderfully pretty to heighten the effect. The spectre, hovering in the air above a tomb at some distance ... had no eyes; its long hair hung loose; its white robe floated light as smoke. I thought of a statement in a composition by one of my pupils about ghosts: "Their greatest peculiarity is that they have no feet." Then I jumped again, for the thing, quite soundlessly, but very swiftly, made through the air at me.[3]

Pop culture references[edit]

Jynx from the media franchise Pokémon is said to be a reference to Yama-uba, with the same golden-white hair, red kimono, and prominent mouth. The dark skin could be attributed to the tendency in Noh theater to play the Yama-uba character in blackface. Jynx's unusual Ice/Psychic type may reference Yama-uba's typical location in icy mountains, as well as her supernatural powers and her consideration by some to be a spirit affecting the weather, namely winter weather. Also, Yama-uba is known to seduce her victims by dancing, which is often referenced by Jynx's Pokédex entries within Pokémon games.[11]


  1. ^ Cavallaro, 132.
  2. ^ Joly, 396.
  3. ^ a b Hearn, 267.
  4. ^ Ashkenazi, 294.
  5. ^ Ozaki, 70.
  6. ^ Ozaki, 67.
  7. ^ Shirane, 558.
  8. ^ Monaghan, 238.
  9. ^ a b Waley, 247.
  10. ^ Wallace, 184.
  11. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8X3l_Tt8VE


  • Ashkenazi, Michael. Handbook of Japanese mythology. ABC-CLIO (2003)
  • Cavallaro, Dani. The Fairy Tale and Anime: Traditional Themes, Images and Symbols at Play on Screen. McFarland. (2011)
  • Hearn, Lafcadio. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. Houghton, Mifflin and company. (1894)
  • Joly, Henri. Legend in Japanese art: a description of historical episodes, legendary characters, folk-lore, myths, religious symbolism, illustrated in the arts of old Japan. New York: J. Lane. (1908)
  • Monaghan, Patricia. Encyclopedia of goddesses and heroines. ABC-CLIO. (2010)
  • Ozaki, Yei Theodora. The Japanese fairy book. Archibald Constable & Co. (1903)
  • Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900. Columbia University Press. (2004)
  • Waley, Arthur. The Nō plays of Japan. New York: A. A. Knopf (1922)
  • Wallace, Sean. Japanese Dreams. Lethe Press. (2009)