When it gets to be around 3 am and I’m finishing up the last touches on the day’s yokai painting, there’s always a sense of part satisfaction and part relief. Obviously working this late brings some amount of physical stress, but more interesting is the mental stress. In the morning I research yokai, in the afternoon I sketch, and in the evening through night I paint, and so when I sleep I also dream yokai. This can be fun, when I’m painting light and happy yokai, but it can also be pretty disturbing, especially now in this final week of October, when I am trying to paint scarier and scarier yokai each night. Your mind and eyes can play tricks on you late at night, especially when you’ve been focusing on one particular thing so intensely. Tonight is one of those nights, where thinking creepy thoughts is making my brain wander and see things that aren’t there. My wife also happens to be away this weekend, so lucky for me the sun will be up soon and the shadows won’t play too many more tricks on me…
Some yokai are creative. Some are silly. Some are partially humorous commentaries, like the pair of brothel yokai we looked at recently. Others, though, are reflections of the social problems of their day. These are tragic reminders that folklore and superstition are not always simple fun and games.
When a woman dies just before or during childbirth, it is said that her spirit is unable to pass on out of anxiety for her newborn child. This turns into a type of ghost called an ubume, or “childbirth woman.” She appears like she did in life, except much more horrifying. That is to say there is no doubt she is dead and a ghost. Her face is etched with worry and sorrow, and she will not pass on to the afterlife until she is sure that her child’s future is secure.
In some stories, the ghost will try to buy food, clothes, or sweets for her child using dead leaves as money. In other cases, such as when the mother died in childbirth with nobody around to know about it, the ghost will try to lead living humans to the place where her baby is hidden so that they can take it in and raise it in her place.
Although they may look scary, ubume are usually harmless ghosts. They have one purpose, and it is a wholesome one, and they don’t haunt people or try to surprise them. Still, I would hate to run into a translucent , naked, bloody, dead woman on the road at night beckoning me to follow her into the woods…
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