the online database of Japanese folkore

Ryūgū warashi

竜宮童子
りゅうぐうわらし

Translation: child from the dragon palace
Alternate names: Ryūgū dōji
Habitat: lakes, ponds, rivers, and the ocean

Appearance: Ryūgū warashi are the children of Ryūgū, the underwater kingdom. Specifically, they are children in the service of the nobility and high ranking members of underwater society, such as guardians of lakes, rivers, ponds, and so on. They look like human children, except that they are horribly unattractive—either due to having very ugly faces, or due to being utterly filthy and refusing to bathe.

Interactions: Ryūgū warashi are given like gifts to people in return for offerings made to their underwater parents. They are talented, magical children who are able to fulfill almost any wish their adoptive parents might desire. They are excellent cooks, and their meals taste better than anything known to humans. Homes with Ryūgū warashi never run out of food or money, and quickly become prosperous and wealthy. However, the ugliness of these children eventually becomes more than their people can stand. Inevitably, Ryūgū warashi are forced to bathe or are kicked out by their human parents—after which they return to the sea, and the family loses all of the wealth the Ryūgū warashi brought with it.

Origin: Tales about Ryūgū warashi are found across Japan, especially in the Tōhoku region. There are many different versions with details changing from tale to tale. However, the central theme remains the same: those who lose their gratitude after becoming wealthy end up losing everything. Ryūgū warashi share strong parallels with other child-like yōkai like zashiki warashi and hanatare kozō who bring prosperity to a family for as long as they are made to feel welcome.

Legends: An impoverished elderly couple lived in a hovel the mountains. Every winter the old man chopped bamboo to make into kadomatsu—New Year’s decorations—to sell door to door. It was hard, but they managed to eke out a living. One year the old man was left with a single kadomatsu that he could not sell. Since it would be useless after New Year’s, he discarded it in a river, calling it a present for Ryūgū. As he started home, a voice called out from the river: “Ryūgū thanks you for your gift. Please, come feast with us.”

The old man was taken to a splendid feast at the dragon palace. He was given a tour through the palace and shown its magical gardens of the seasons. He was presented with as much delicious food as he could eat. But he thought of his wife waiting for him at home, and he asked to be returned to the surface world. The servants of Ryūgū took him back, and since the old couple had no children, they said they would give him a child as thanks for the gift.

When the old man returned home, his wife was waiting for him with a little boy. “Look how amazing this child is!” the old woman sad. “Anything you wish for, he will give it to you!” She asked the boy for food, and in an instant their kitchen stores overflowed with rice. The old man asked for money, and his coin purse was suddenly filled with gold coins. It was like a miracle. All they could ever want was theirs. They wished for land, a large house, expensive clothes, and all of the comforts the wealthy enjoy.

For a while the three of them were a happy family. The old couple grew accustomed to living in their fancy house, wearing fabulous clothing, and eating the best foods. Eventually, they began to notice things that hadn’t bothered them when they were poor. For instance, they noticed how ugly the little child from Ryūgū was. And they noticed how filthy he was. The child did not fit in with their beautiful and clean, new lifestyle.

While couldn’t do anything about the child’s face, they tried to dress him in nicer clothes. He refused to wear them. “At the very least, you must take a bath!” the old couple insisted. But no matter how hard they pressed, the child refused to bathe too. Finally they lost their tempers. They said, “If you won’t even take a bath, you should just go back to Ryūgū!”

Just as they wished, the boy vanished like a wisp of smoke. And when he did, the enormous house, the gold, the fine clothes, and all of the luxuries the child had given the old couple vanished too. They were dirty, cold, and poor; just as they had been before.

Alphabetical list of yōkai