the online database of Japanese folkore

Ubume

姑獲鳥
うぶめ

Translation: woman in late pregnancy; often written with different characters
Alternate names: obo, unme, ugume, ubame tori, and many others
Habitat: haunts the area where she gave birth
Diet: none; only exists to deliver her baby into safe hands

Appearance: When a woman dies just before, during, or shortly after childbirth, anxiety for her child may prevent her spirit from passing on. This troubled attachment manifests as a ghost known as an ubume. These women appear on dark, rainy nights. Ubume can appear in many forms: a woman carrying a baby; a pregnant woman; or a blood-soaked walking corpse carrying an underdeveloped fetus. Other times they just appear as horrific, bloody, pregnant women crying out desperately into the night for help.

These variations are due to the burial traditions of different regions, as well as the circumstances of their death. In some areas, when a pregnant woman died she would be buried with the unborn fetus still inside of her. In other places, the fetus would be cut out of her and placed in her arms during burial. Women who died after delivering stillborn babies were also buried this way.

Behavior: These tragic spirits wander the areas near where they died, seeking aid from the living which they cannot provide themselves. If the mother died after childbirth but her baby survived, the newly formed ubume will try to care for the child in whatever way it can. She enters shops or homes to try to purchase food, clothes, or sweets for her still-living child. In place of money she pays with handfuls of dead leaves. These ghosts also try to lead humans to the place where their baby is hidden so that it can be taken to its living relatives, or adopted by another person.

In cases where both mother and child died, an ubume can appear carrying the bundled corpse of her infant. When a human approaches, the ghost tries to deliver the bundle into the arms of the living. If the stranger accepts, the ghost vanishes, and the bundle grows heavier and heavier until the helpful stranger is crushed under its weight.

Other forms: The name ubume is written with characters that imply a bird’s name. The literal translation of these characters is “child-snatching bird” and some theories connect this spirit with another yōkai called the ubumetori. This yōkai is an evil bird which flies through the sky searching for clothing that has been left on the clothesline overnight. When it finds some, it smears its poisonous blood on the clothing. Shortly afterward, the owner of those clothes begins to develop shakes and convulsions; possibly leading to death. Ubumetori are also blamed for snatching babies and taking them away into the night sky. Whether this bird is another form of the ghostly mother or a separate spirit with a similar name is not known.

Alphabetical list of yōkai