the online database of Japanese folkore

Chīnouya

乳の親
ちいのうや

Translation: milk mother, wet nurse
Habitat: rivers and streams near graveyards

Appearance: Chīnouya are Okinawan spirits which resemble ghostly human women, with long black hair that hangs down as if just washed, and exceedingly large breasts. Their facial expressions show gentle, motherly kindness.

Behavior: Chīnouya live in rivers near graveyards where children are buried. They emerge from the water to look after the spirits of dead children, nourishing them in the afterlife with their milk. When they appear on land, they usually haunt a specific tree and only ever appear near it.

Interactions: Because chīnouya watch over of the spirits of dead children, when a child under six years old dies, it is customary to ask them to look after the spirits of the deceased by leaving multi-tiered boxes of food at the graveyard as an offering.

Despite their kind appearance and motherly nature, chīnouya can be very dangerous. Their nurturing has the opposite effect if the subject is a living child, quickly causing them to weaken and die. When children wander too close to the water where a chīnouya lives, the chīnouya will pull them down into the depths and drown them.

Because mirrors resemble the shiny, reflective water’s surface, on islands where chīnouya are found, young children are kept away from mirrors. It is believed that children who look at mirrors will be drawn to water, and might wander too close to the water where a chīnouya lives.

Origin: Chīnouya come from the folklore of Yanbara, the forested, northern part of Okinawa Island. Child-rearing spirits like them are found all over Japan and share many similarities. North of Okinawa Prefecture, spirits like ubume and kosodate yūrei are well-known examples. Within Okinawa, many islands have their own local variations, such as the chīanmē from Kouri Island. A chīanmē stares, forlorn, towards one direction and foretells the death of a child. It is believed a child will die within one week in whatever village lies in the direction the chīanmē stares.

Legends: In the village of Ōgimi on Okinawa Island, a young couple gave birth to their second child. He was healthy for several months, but then he fell seriously ill. His parents, grandparents, and relatives all gathered and took turns caring for the boy day and night. Finally, the baby’s strength returned and he started to look better. Then, one night, a hemp palm in the front of the house began to glow eerily. The door to the baby’s room was open a crack, and the mother peered in. She saw a woman with long hair and enormous breasts smiling at her baby and telling him to come to her. Then she vanished. The mother screamed for help and rushed into the boy’s room, but it was already too late. The baby was unresponsive, and his body was growing cold.

Alphabetical list of yōkai