Hanako-san

Date of Discovery

Matthew Meyer, an author and folklorist, has dated the legend of Hanako-san back to the 1950s, but like the western counterpart, Bloody Mary, it is clear that the legend existed before official documentation.

Supposedly the urban legend began in 1950 as, “Hanako of the third stall.” In the 1980s, her story became widely known all over Japan, and in the 1990s a variety of movies and animes were made about her. She is now known as, “Hanako of the Toilet.”

Name

Hanako-san and Toire no Hanako-san in Japanese, which translates roughly to, “Hanako of the Toilet.”

Vaguely related to the legend of Bloody Mary.

Physical Description

Hanako-san, according to Japanese urban legends, is the spirit of a young girl who haunts the bathrooms of schools. Although her physical description varies across the different sources, she is commonly seen as wearing a red skirt or dress, with her haircut worn in a bob long enough to cover her neck.

In Japanese culture, she is known as a yōkai–which is a reference to a spirit in the form of a monster, or demon–or a yūrei, which is synonymous with what western culture considers a ghost. 

Origin

Over the last seventy years, Hanako-san has become a fixture of Japanese urban folklore, before the 1990s, it was just an oral legend, but it has since become a part of their pop-culture, being featured in movies as well as manga and anime series. Michael Dylan Foster wrote The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore, in which he stated that Hanako-san is a well known urban legend associated with all schools across Japan.

Mythology and Lore

As a part of Japanese urban legends and folklore, Hanako-san is more versatile spirit than most, like Bloody Mary she comes to haunt only when she is called. Each reported case has different details of the haunting and encounter, but there are common themes across the board. In one version, she is a school child who was killed during an air raid, while playing hide-and-seek, during World War II–a variation on this is that she was starving, but agreed to play the game anyway, but her body gave in to hunger and died in the bathroom stall. In other versions, she either committed suicide or she was hiding from an abusive parent and upon finding her in the bathroom they killed her. Some stories suggest that she came to the school to play when it wasn’t in session, was followed by a pedophile, then was assaulted and killed. Depending upon the variant of the story, however, she can either appear as a ghostly, bloody hand or Hanako-san herself. Additional details about where her grave can be found are given in some scenarios, which suggest that she was either buried in a garbage dump in Saitama, or behind a school gym in Tokyo.

In Japanese schools across the country, the typical ritual goes, that you enter the girl’s bathroom (usually on the third floor) and knock three times on every door. From the closest door to the farthest door, after knocking, you would ask, “Is Hanako there?” After repeating this question three times the answer, “yes,” will come from the third stall in a small, soft voice. When you open the door to the stall, Hanako will be standing there, waiting to drag you into the toilet.

While it may sound like an odd trend, there are quite a few yōkai and yūrei that reside within bathrooms and toilets. Most any person from Japan will tell you that they have tried to summon Hanako-san while they were in elementary school.

Modern Pop-Culture References

Books & Literature

Movies

Television Series



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Ubume

Ubume cradling her dead child
Artwork by Toriyama Sekien

Date of Discovery

Found as far back as the Heian-period Tales of Times Now Past, the first known date of her being described was during the Edo period, in 1687. Through the illustrations in the picture scrolls of the Hyakkai-zukan and the Bakemono zukushi within Toriyama Sekien’s catalog, Ubume’s image as a yokai became permanent.

Name

The Ubume is also known as the Birthing Woman. She has many different names across the many regions of Japan–in the Shiga Prefecture, she is known as the Ubume-tori and on Sado Island in the Niigata Prefecture, she is known as the Ubu–other names include Obo, Unme, Ugume, and Ubame tori.

In modern times, the standard kanji characters used to name her literally define how she died, 産女, which translates to “birthing woman.”

Since death during childbirth was such a common experience before modern medicine, it’s possible that the Ubume is related to a similar yokai, known as the kosodate-yurei, which translates to “child-rearing ghost.”

Physical Description

The Ubume can appear in many different forms, many of the most popular renditions are when she appears as a woman carrying a baby, a pregnant woman, or a blood-soaked walking corpse carrying an underdeveloped fetus. At times her apparition can be described as a bloody pregnant woman who cries out into the night in desperate need for help; all of these variations are because of the different burial traditions in the different regions from which the story originates, as well as the circumstances under which the woman and her child died. Within the traditions of burying a woman who died while trying to birth a stillborn fetus, she would either be buried with the baby within her womb, or they would cut the child out of her and cradle the fetus in her arms for burial.

Suuhi Ubume, cradling her dead child
Artwork by Sawaki Sūshi

Origin

The origin of the Ubume is the result of a woman who dies just before, during, or shortly after childbirth, where the spirit experiences crippling anxiety about the safety of her child after passing. Due to this unresolved issue, her ghost manifests as the Ubume and her spirit will typically appear later on during dark and rainy nights.

The Ubume embodies the serious health concerns about pregnancy and safely delivering a child. She represents the self-sacrificing spirit of motherhood. Several Buddhist temples in Japan, are actually associated with the Ubume, motherhood, as well as the act of childbirth itself.

Mythology and Lore

According to The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore by Michael Dylan Foster, the Ubume is found in various different forms throughout the country of Japan and resides in a collection of ghost stories, religious texts, and other documents. The details of her stories vary from place to place, but she is commonly thought of as the apparition of a woman who died during childbirth.

In one version of the tale, she will appear at crossroads or upon a bridge as twilight falls upon the region, with her lower body completely soaked in blood, she appears to be crying and cradling an infant in her arms. If a male passes her by, she asks him to hold the baby, and then promptly leaves. In this version, the baby continuously grows heavier in the man’s arms until he cannot move or risk dropping the child–in alternatives of this particular tale, the baby actually turns into a stone.

Although it’s never clear what happens to the baby or the woman, there are always different outcomes to each narrative depending upon the region from which the tale originates. One in particular ends with the man being rewarded for his effort with the gift of physical strength, which he is able to pass on to his descendants in the years to come.

In many other parts of Japan, there is a legend of a mysterious woman who comes night after night to buy candy from a corner store. One night, after the shopkeeper has grown suspicious of her, he follows her and finds that she disappears into a graveyard. As soon as she disappears, he hears a baby crying and stumbles upon a grave that has been dug up, where a woman who had died during childbirth had recently been buried. The strangest thing happens when he finds this grave, he finds her baby, healthy and alive laying by the side of the freshly decomposing corpse of its mother. The shopkeeper takes the child in, and in many legends, the baby grows up to become a prominent Buddhist monk.

Within the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons: A Field Guide to Japanese Yokai, the author Matthew Meyer discusses how these tragic spirits wander the areas near where they passed away, where the baby survives, and her attempts to care for the child that she left behind. In some cases, she even attempts to purchase food, clothes, or candy for her surviving child, but in place of money, she tries to purchase it with handfuls of dead leaves. This particular Ubume is also known to try to lead someone to where her baby is hidden so it can be cared for by the living.

Modern Pop-Culture References

The Ubume became a well-known fictional character within popular Japanese culture, by means of Kabuki dramas, where she was the basis for the ghost of Oiwa-san, a vengeful spirit who returns from the dead to haunt her cruel and cheating husband within the play Tokaido-Yotsuya Kaidan from 1825. Surprisingly, this doesn’t sound all too unfamiliar with ghost stories such as the one of La Llorona.



Is there anything we missed about the Ubume? Let us know in the comments section below!