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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I too hope to do the same.