Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ubume, the Yōkai Who Was Once Human

And now we have come to the end of our week of element-based yōkai.  Today's yōkai features that most crucial element of all, the human element (a neo-Japanesque thought if ever I had one).

I've stated before that yōkai are unlike anything else in any other country's lore, and even within Japan.  They are not revered like kami, they are not feared like ghosts, they are not avoided like demons.  Ghosts are one thing, monsters another, and yōkai are just yōkai.  They're kind of the lower rung of odd Japanese beasts, as the humourous stories many possess show.  They may attempt to explain or personify a natural phenomenon, they may just be mischievous being who wants to mess with humans, or they may just be some random, distinctive creature who happens to live in Japan.  Like I said in this week's first entry, just because we don't see yōkai so much anymore doesn't mean that they aren't still there.  Today's yōkai is no exception.

While yōkai are just inhabitants of the country, be they natural or supernatural, the creatures themselves are simply different than most things that roam Japan:  that's what makes them yōkai.  However, we've seen Tesso, who was once a man that let his unnatural death turn him into an onryō, except that it became rather monstrous, so he is viewed as a yōkai instead.  But that is a single happening: there is only one Tesso, and he only really wanted to spook one or two people.  So he isn't a breed of yōkai, he's just a guy that became monstrous in death.  That's pretty common in Japan.

What is uncommon is that certain element of humanity that enables anyone to become a yōkai.  There are only two such yōkai that I can think of, and today I will discuss one of them.

What is it about the human spirit that holds such unique power?  Today's yōkai exemplifies this quandary.  Japanese live in a wonderful country inhabited from great gods to lowly demons to bugs to pesky yōkai to ghosts to wolves to people.  Everything lives there and interacts with one another on different levels.  We know that some animals can be born, or some objects can be improperly purified and cared for and, after a long time, they become yōkai.  Some humans live unfortunate lives and have no power to control their own destiny until they are dead, wherein their spirit lingers on, hoping for some retribution.

But what if a human spirit is able to pass on, their body properly purified and cared for, but their feelings remain?  What if those feelings then manifest themselves into something frightening?  What if those feelings are able to change themselves into a yōkai all its own?  While incredibly rare, this sort of transformation is exclusively human.  What makes a human being become a yōkai?  Let's let the ubume tell us.

Ubume literally means "woman giving birth" (産女). The most common story associated with Ubume is as follows:

You're walking along, doing whatever it is that you do, and you see a woman standing in a swamp, or near some body of water.  She looks upset and somewhat distracted, not to mention the fact that she's naked from the waist up.  From the waist down, however, her kimono or underclothes are draped carelessly around her genitals, and they're covered in blood.  She's also holding a sobbing baby, or else setting it down and walking away from it.  She either begs you to take the baby from her, or wades into the water and drowns herself before you can stop her.  So now you've got a baby.

Perhaps you're afraid that the baby is going to turn to stone and grow extremely large extremely fast and crush you to death, in the mode of the Konaki Jijii?  Well you should be afraid of that, because that's exactly what it's going to do.  But the baby itself isn't a Konaki Jijii.  It was the mother who was a yōkai.

Sekien's Ubume.

The story I've just told seems a little rehashed, doesn't it?  In fact, it leaves out much of the crucial elements that form the Ubume, and why Ubume are such unusual yōkai.  This story is more Edo-period Hundred Ghost Story Night style, designed for a quick scare.  But the reasons that Ubume exist have been around forever, and tales of the Ubume have been preserved from as far back as the 12th century.  The key is in the name of the Ubume that Sekien used.  If you look, you can see that the kanji is different.  It reads 姑獲鳥.

Sekien relates this name to be pronounced as "ubume," but from the time and the readings, we would want to call it "kokakuchō."  However, it doesn't make any sense put together.  That's because it comes from the name of a Chinese demon.  The kokakuchō sometimes appears as an onryō who steals babies.  In reality, it is a shape-shifting bird demon who uses its human-esque form to enable it to take the children and raise them as its own in its nest.  Though it is not related to the Japanese Ubume, the significance of Sekien choosing to name it and adapt it speaks to the original story of the Ubume, before it was an Edo-period curiosity.

Sawaki Suushi's Ubume, from his famous Yōkai Picture Book.  His book is another well-known example of 100 Story Yōkai art, and I've used a few of his pictures before, like the crazy-eyed Onyudo and the Kamikiri.  Most depictions of Ubume follow his example.

When the Ubume first became well-known, it was at a time when child mortality rates were extremely high.  Women would just as often die in childbirth as they would live, and many children were stillborn, or even forced to be aborted.  I can't imagine the trauma of these events whatsoever, but the Ubume reminds us all of the critical bond a mother has for her child.  The woman would die giving birth to her baby, or else she would suffer severe postpartum depression at losing a child.  It's a horrible situation, but not supernatural.  Essentially, she dies as everyone else does.

The difference is that a part of her lives on.  Her body and spirit go to wherever they are bound, but her regrets at losing the child, or being unable to care for it due to her own death remain.  The human element causes the regrets of a mother unable to be a mother to become so powerful that they manifest themselves into a creature that is no longer human.  That creature is the Ubume.

Those regrets become monstrous, and are a type of yōkai since there is no human controlling it any longer.  It simply is a breed of strange creature.  The unyielding "nesting" and "empty-nest" feelings the mother was clinging to change the manifested regrets into a bird-like creature, who lingers near the houses of pregnant women or its own former home, cawing like a bird "wobareu, wobareu," which means "Come out!  Be born!"

But as the situation varies, the regrets do not always appear so abnormal.  Some simply become a ghostly image of the mother, albeit, unlike yūrei, the woman will be covered in sores, open wounds, blood, and just be generally nasty-looking.

In these pair of images by Hagihara Kyouka.

A distinctly more birdlike Ubume from the video game Ōkami.

Yoshitoshi's ghostly Ubume, as seen in Kagrra,'s Kotodama PV.

And of course, the ultimate source of Ubume speculation...

Kyogoku Natsuhiko's novel, Ubume no Natsu, or Summer of the Ubume.  As I mentioned in the Tesso entry, Kyogokudo writes about yōkai with much philosophical and historical discussion, but then ties it into a detective or mystery story that vaguely represents the yōkai, but without seeming too supernatural.  Often, it will be a completely realistic albeit frightening story that has disturbing connotations to the titular yōkai.  Summer of the Ubume is fantastic, and available in English!  I highly recommend you read it if you can.  Kyogoku is one of my favourite authors.  I've seen some of the English translation, and I think it's quite good, although you may need to have some idea as to what a yōkai is before taking on the novel.  Luckily, you have me.  If you can read Japanese, Kyogoku also has covered many different yōkai in other books, as well as nonfiction accounts of yōkai and a review of Suushi's art that I mentioned.

An alternate cover of Ubume no Natsu, which features the outstanding papier-mâché art of Arai Ryo.

I don't know about you, but I think this is how I will always picture Ubume.  I hope I never see one.

After Kyogoku's novel was released, Ubume became very popular in Japan.  I don't know if it was the adept combination of two things Japanese people love to be entertained by (creepy monsters and human empathy) or because Kyogoku's novel was just so captivating (it really is, I can't stress this enough).  Regardless, Japan recently experienced an Ubume fascination that culminated in such things as "Ubume Conventions," wherein people would gather to hear about, discuss, and be creeped out by stories of the Ubume.

Seriously, I never ever want to meet an Ubume.

I've been wanting to do this entry for a while now, especially since I started discussing yōkai.  There are so many yōkai and they each have such unique forms and habits.  However, the Ubume makes up one of two yōkai I know that actually exist due to the astounding nature of humans to become something other than nothing or a ghost after death; to form into something that is not human and is not beast, that no longer contains any of that person's life essence, and yet represents everything that they held dear while alive.  It's such a fascinating idea that humans possess the capability to become something.  It's why I find folklore, myth, and religious studies so intriguing: what makes us the way that we are, and how are we capable of preserving, changing, and keeping these beliefs, these gods, these yōkai?  Hearn re-sparked interest in Japanese culture worldwide and amongst Japanese themselves; Kyogoku has written literally thousands of pages on the subject; Mizuki has captivated children and adults alike with his records and stories of yōkai; Isshi saw the significance of it all and sought to preserve the traditions while analysing the nature of humans and demons.

I too hope to do the same.

Happy Halloween!!

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