the online database of Japanese folkore

Tsuru nyōbō

鶴女房
つるにょうぼう

Translation: crane wife
Habitat: rural areas
Diet: as a crane or as a human, depending on the form

Appearance: Tsuru nyōbō are cranes (Grus japonensis) that have changed into human form. They usually take the form of beautiful young women.

Interactions: Tsuru nyōbō take human form to pay thanks to someone who has been kind to them—by rescuing them from a hunter or a trap, for example.

Origin: Tsuru nyōbō are an example of a common folklore trope in Japan: animal-human marriage. Stories about animal husbands or wives marrying human partners are found in every region in Japan. Many variations of each tale exist, but they usually have similar plots based on which animal is involved. Tsuru nyōbō stories often follow a pattern resembling the following story from Niigata Prefecture.

Legends: One winter, a poor young man was gathering firewood in the mountains. He came across an crane flapping pitiably on the ground. Its wing had been pierced by a hunter’s arrow. The man approached the crane and gently removed the arrow. Then he applied some medicine and bandaged the wing. Afterwards, the crane flew up into the air and cried happily. It circled the young man, then flew away.

Not long after, one cold and snowy night there was a knock on the man’s door. When he opened the door, he was surprised to see a beautiful young woman dressed in traveler’s clothes standing in the snow. It was cold and dark, and a terrible time to be traveling alone. The woman asked if she could spend the night in the man’s home. He felt sorry for her and immediately welcomed her inside. She sat by the fire to warm up, and though he was poor, the man offered her what little food he had.

The next day, the man went out to gather more firewood. When he returned, the woman was still there. Not only that, she had cleaned the whole house. She stayed the following day too, and the day after that. She made no mention of continuing on her journey, and the man did not ask her about it, for he enjoyed her company. This carried on for some time.

One day the woman told the man that she would like to be his wife. The man could not believe that such a beautiful young woman would want to marry someone as poor as him. She assured him that she had thought carefully about her decision. He liked having her around, so he happily took her as his bride. For a wedding gift, she asked him to build her a loom. When it was completed, she announced that she would weave a brocade. She insisted that she needed total privacy to work. She asked her husband to leave her alone in her workroom for seven days, and she made him promise that he would not look in on her.

The husband listened to the clack-clack-boom of the loom as his wife worked. But he kept his promise and did not spy upon her. After the seventh day she emerged from her workroom looking exhausted. She carried the most splendid piece of fabric the man had ever seen before. She instructed him to take the brocade into town and sell it to the lord for one thousand ryō. He was astonished—could it really be worth such a lordly sum?

The man did as she asked, and the lord bought the fabric for one thousand ryō. Then, the lord commanded him to make another brocade just like the first one. He returned home with the fortune he had received for the fabric and told his wife that the lord wanted another one just like it. She seemed reluctant to weave another one. However, as the lord had commanded it, her husband’s life would be in danger if he did not deliver it. She agreed to weave one more. And once again, she made her husband promise not to look upon her while she was working.

The husband listened to the clack-clack-boom of the loom as his wife worked. But this time, he wondered how she could weave such an extraordinary brocade when they didn’t even own a single spool of thread. His curiosity overpowered him. He opened the door to the workroom and peaked inside. There, working the loom, was a crane where his wife should have been. The crane pulled out its own feathers one by one, using them in place of thread to weave the fabric. Its body was nearly plucked bare, and covered in painful red spots. Astonished, the man quietly closed the door and let the crane finish its work.

After the seventh day the woman emerged from the workroom looking gaunt. She carried a brocade equal in splendor to the first one. It would surely sell for one thousand ryō. She gave the fabric to her husband, and looked at him with sad eyes. She explained that she was the crane he had saved from the hunter that night. In order to repay his kindness, she had changed into a human in order to be by his side. But he had broken his promise and spied upon her, and now she could no longer be with him. Though it was brief, she would cherish their time together forever.

Then she transformed into a crane and flew up into the sky. She called out one last time, and a flock of cranes passed overhead. She joined the flock, and flew off into the distance never to be seen again.

Alphabetical list of yōkai