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Ubume: The Spirit of a Mother who Died in Childbirth in Japanese Folklore


The world of folklore is filled with stories that reflect the fears, beliefs, and anxieties of a culture. In Japan, a land rich with ancient traditions and myths, one particularly haunting spirit known as the Ubume embodies the profound grief and loss associated with death in childbirth. This ethereal being, often depicted as a pale, mournful woman carrying a baby, is a chilling reminder of the fragility of life and the enduring power of maternal love, even in the face of tragedy. This blog post delves into the fascinating story of the Ubume, exploring its origins, appearance, cultural impact, and the enduring questions surrounding its existence.

Table of Contents

The Origins and Legend of the Ubume

The Ubume’s story originates from a profound tragedy: the death of a mother during childbirth. In Japanese folklore, it is said that when a woman perishes giving birth, her spirit, unable to find peace, remains tethered to the mortal realm. This restless spirit, filled with an unfulfilled longing for her child, transforms into the Ubume. The tale of the Ubume serves as a poignant reminder of the pain and sorrow associated with such a loss, highlighting the deep bond between mother and child that transcends even death.

While the core story of the Ubume remains consistent, variations exist across different regions of Japan. Some legends depict the Ubume as a malevolent spirit seeking revenge on those who caused her demise, while others portray her as a more sympathetic figure, yearning for comfort or simply seeking to connect with others. In some regions, the Ubume might be associated with a particular location or event, further solidifying her place in local folklore.

Beyond its tragic origins, the Ubume holds cultural significance as a cautionary tale. It serves as a reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of respecting the dead, especially those who have perished in such a tragic manner. The Ubume’s story is also connected to the concept of “onryo,” vengeful spirits in Japanese folklore, highlighting the potential for unfulfilled desires and unresolved grief to manifest as malevolent forces.

Appearance and Characteristics of the Ubume

The Ubume is often depicted as a woman with pale skin, disheveled hair, and a sorrowful expression. Her appearance is typically associated with the physical toll of childbirth and the pain of loss. A defining characteristic of the Ubume is her presence of a baby, usually wrapped in a cloth or held in her arms. This baby, however, is not always alive. Some legends depict the baby as deceased, symbolizing the mother’s inability to let go of her lost child.

The Ubume’s behavior can be unpredictable, ranging from passively mournful to actively menacing. She is known to lurk near roads and forests, appearing to travelers and villagers as a ghostly figure. Some accounts describe the Ubume as a source of fear and misfortune, capable of frightening people or even causing them harm. Others depict her as more of a cautionary figure, warning those who encounter her about the dangers of ignoring the spirits of the deceased.

The Ubume’s motivations are complex and often debated. Some believe that her primary goal is to seek revenge against those who caused her death or those who failed to provide her with a proper burial. Others suggest that her actions stem from a desire for connection, a longing for comfort, or simply the inability to accept the loss of her child. The Ubume’s behavior, often erratic and unpredictable, mirrors the chaotic emotions associated with grief and trauma, making her a powerful and unsettling figure in Japanese folklore.

The Ubume in Japanese Culture

The Ubume’s story has left an enduring mark on Japanese culture, finding its way into various forms of artistic expression and influencing societal beliefs.

The Ubume is a recurring figure in Japanese art, appearing in paintings, woodblock prints, and traditional stories. Artists often portray the Ubume as a ghostly apparition, her sorrowful expression and the presence of the baby serving as potent symbols of loss, grief, and the enduring power of maternal love. The Ubume’s artistic representation reinforces her role as a cautionary figure, reminding viewers of the fragility of life and the consequences of neglecting the spirits of the deceased.

One notable example is the ukiyo-e print “Ubume” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, depicting a ghostly woman in a tattered kimono, her face shrouded in sorrow, cradling a baby in her arms. The print captures the Ubume’s haunting presence and her connection to both death and motherhood.

The Ubume has also found her way into modern Japanese media, including films, anime, video games, and manga. These adaptations often reimagine the Ubume’s story, exploring different aspects of her character and motivations. Sometimes, the Ubume is presented as a purely malevolent spirit, while in other instances, she becomes a more complex figure, capable of both terror and empathy.

For example, the anime series “Mononoke” features a haunting episode centered around the Ubume, where she is depicted as a tragic figure seeking to find peace for her lost child. The episode explores themes of guilt, regret, and the enduring power of maternal love.

These modern interpretations reflect the ever-evolving anxieties and concerns of Japanese society. By re-imagining the Ubume’s story, modern artists and storytellers offer commentary on social issues like the pressures of motherhood, the fear of loss, and the consequences of neglecting the marginalized.

The Ubume’s influence extends beyond artistic representation, shaping Japanese beliefs about death, childbirth, and motherhood. The story of the Ubume underscores the importance of respecting the dead, especially those who have perished during childbirth. It also reinforces the deep cultural significance of motherhood in Japanese society, emphasizing the profound emotional bond between a mother and her child, a bond that transcends even death.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: What is the difference between the Ubume and the Yuki-onna?

The Yuki-onna, or Snow Woman, is another prominent spirit in Japanese folklore, often depicted as a beautiful woman with long white hair and icy blue eyes. Unlike the Ubume, who is associated with death in childbirth, the Yuki-onna is a spirit of winter, often associated with cold, isolation, and death. While both spirits can be terrifying, the Yuki-onna is often depicted as more malevolent and predatory, preying on lost travelers in snowy regions.

Q: Can the Ubume be appeased or avoided?

There is no definitive answer to this question. Some legends suggest that offerings of food or incense might appease the Ubume, while others claim that there is no way to escape her wrath once she has set her sights on someone. The best way to avoid encountering the Ubume is to be mindful of one’s surroundings, especially at night, and to show respect for the spirits of the deceased.

Q: Why is the Ubume often associated with a baby?

The baby in the Ubume’s arms represents the mother’s unfulfilled longing for her child. It symbolizes the deep bond between mother and child that transcends death, and the mother’s inability to let go of her lost offspring. The baby also serves as a reminder of the tragedy of the Ubume’s death and the sorrow that she carries with her.

Q: Is the Ubume always malevolent?

While the Ubume is often depicted as a terrifying figure, she is not inherently evil. Some legends portray her as a more sympathetic spirit, seeking comfort or connection, while others depict her as more vengeful, seeking retribution for her death. Her actions are often driven by her unresolved grief and pain, making her a complex and unpredictable figure.

Q: How is the Ubume’s story related to Japanese beliefs about the afterlife?

The Ubume’s story is closely tied to Japanese beliefs about the afterlife, particularly the concept of “onryo,” or vengeful spirits. The Ubume’s unresolved grief and desire for her lost child can manifest as malevolent energy, driving her to seek revenge or haunt those who wronged her in life. This underscores the importance of proper burial rites and honoring the spirits of the deceased in Japanese culture.


The Ubume, with her haunting presence and tragic story, remains a powerful symbol in Japanese folklore, reflecting the deep anxieties and concerns surrounding death, childbirth, and the enduring power of maternal love. Her story serves as a potent reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of respecting the spirits of the deceased. While the Ubume may inspire fear and unease, she also reminds us of the profound impact of grief and loss, and the enduring power of the human spirit, even in the face of tragedy.

The Ubume’s legend continues to captivate and intrigue, inviting us to delve into the complexities of Japanese mythology and the enduring power of folklore to shape our understanding of the world around us.