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Yamamba as Muse: Three Poems by Noriko Mizuta

Poetry by Noriko Mizuta, translated by Marianne Tarcov and introduced by Rebecca Copeland

June 1, 2021
Volume 19 | Issue 11 | Number 1
Article ID 5602


Abstract: Japan’s beguiling mountain witch, the yamamba, has inspired artists from medieval Noh actors to contemporary poets. She offers a fertile metaphor for a creative energy that exceeds boundaries and threatens disruption. For female artists in particular, the yamamba epitomizes the freedom of refusing gendered expectations as well as the consequences that befall those who do. Renowned scholar and poet, Noriko Mizuta, has long found a muse in the yamamba. This article is excerpted and adapted from the book Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch, co-edited by Rebecca Copeland and Linda C. Ehrlich, which presents the surprising ways artists and scholars from North America and Japan have encountered the yamamba. Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch is available June 22nd from Stone Bridge Press.

The artist is
Kayo Ohmori, a music therapist and reciter of poetry who lives in Chiba, Japan.


The yamamba is an enigma. The embodiment of fear, she often appears as a wicked old woman who feeds (sometimes literally) on those who stray into her mountain fastness. Her voracious appetite is all the more horrifying for its female origin. At the same time, the yamamba has been described as a nurturing entity who helps the weaver with her loom and the farmer with his fields. The inconsistency of her image tantalizes but also amplifies the terror she evokes. Those who encounter the yamamba can never be certain which version they might meet. This complexity has been represented in stage performances, setsuwa, and other stories over the centuries, each trading on the manifold manifestations of the yamamba to induce both wonder and horror.


The yamamba represents all that lies outside the social norm, beyond the boundaries of the civilized. She is a woman without a family, a woman who does not conform. Cast out from the security of social sanctuary—she runs through the mountain. Her freedom figured as terror. She turns the world upside down, inverting expectations and the comfort of the assumed. In various versions of the tale day becomes night in the yamamba world. The nurturer becomes the murderer. The woman who eats nothing becomes the woman who eats all (Copeland 23).


For twentieth-century Japanese women writers, such as Ōba Minako, Takahashi Takako, Tsushima Yūko and others, it was the freedom of the yamamba figure, her refusal to conform, that proved to be enticing. She entered their stories and poems as a sympathetic character. She was someone who, like they, had been ostracized for her perspicacity and power, who was renegade. Inspired by the yamamba, they refused to limit themselves to respectable roles of wife and mother. Rather, they allowed their imaginations to roam across the mountains, to eat lustily, to chase down their would-be tormenters. These writers not only humanized the yamamba (King 12) but assumed the mantle of her protégé, the rightful inheritor of her voice. Julia Bullock, in exploring the way these writers reclaimed “negative depictions of women in folklore for feminist purposes,” observes “such writers saw the yamanba as a model of femininity unfractured by the intervention of society—a ‘whole’ or ‘natural’ version of female existence.” She continues by quoting Noriko Mizuta, the foremost scholar on the yamamba as feminist icon1:


Perhaps the reason why the yamanba became an archetype of modern women’s search for self was because rather than a solution to the difficult problem of the antinomy between motherhood and independence, home and work, the yamanba offered a fertile metaphor for an existence that made these questions irrelevant. The yamanba’s freedom from fixed sex roles, the variety of her lifestyle, a mobility that defied attachment—all this suggested liberation and freedom from feminine norms, a feminine existence and possibility outside of and surpassing the gender system, and liberated from the resentment of village women subject to this system (Bullock 233).


In Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch, Linda C. Ehrlich and I explore the way the yamamba has inspired artistic works. We see this inspiration emerging as early as the fifteenth-century in the Noh play attributed to Zeami Motokiyo. Here the power of the yamamba—austere and awesome—speaks for the performer-playwright who, despite his own prodigious talent, is socially marginalized and vulnerable to the aesthetic whims of the Ashikaga rulers. In our collection we include an interview with two Noh actors, Uzawa Hisa and Uzawa Hikaru, a mother and daughter pair, who perpetuate both Zeami’s legacy and the performed power of the yamamba. Contemporary dancer and choreographer, Yokoshi Yasuko, draws on this inheritance in her own piece “shuffleyamamba,” which highlights the potency of performance to cross boundaries and articulate powerful truths in the language of the body. Other artists in our collection channel the yamamba into their short stories, poetry, art work, and essays. In sum, the works in this volume speak to the complexity and allure of the yamamba herself.


Excerpt from Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch

The yamamba has been a constant companion to Noriko Mizuta.2 Her fascination emerged in the early 1980s with her translation of Ōba Minako’s short story “The Smile of a Mountain Witch” and was amplified in her 1995 dialogue with Ōba on the yamamba in Japanese culture. Mizuta has contributed to our understanding of the yamamba through her many published translations and essays as well as in her poetry. 

the wiki commons: A wild mountain woman in a cloak of leaves
seated by a rushing stream, behind her the head of a great axe,
which belongs to her son Kintoki, the "child Heracles" of Japanese legend.
Color woodcut by Hokkei, 1820s.

Originally written in Japanese, the three poems excerpted here are translated into English by Japanese literature scholar Marianne Tarcov. As with any work of translation, these come with challenges. The evocative suggestiveness of Noriko Mizuta’s poetic language is easily marred by a translation that is too precise. And yet English—even at its most poetic—generally prefers adherence to grammatical conventions. These demands are particularly fraught when translating from a language like Japanese that survives without precise subjects. Verbs are free to act, to speak, to move without a named protagonist. This indistinctness is essential to Mizuta. Her poems celebrate the yamamba, but they do not necessarily speak in her voice. As Mizuta explains, “I prefer leaving the subject ambiguous, impersonal, or even in the passive mode as if someone or something else, like nature, has taken the actions.” For Mizuta, the yamamba is not contained in a single identity or persona. She sees her poems, rather, as a “series of prayers for, or homage to, Yamamba” by those whose lived experiences have overlapped hers somewhere along the way, those who have stepped beyond the confines of “the village” (or sato) to make their rounds of the mountains.

As the poet explains, key to understanding the yamamba is appreciating all that is represented in “village” and “mountain.” The former stands for the patriarchal family system with its chauvinistic codes of conduct and the self-denying demands placed on the women contained within. Those who cannot abide the demands of the village are forced into the mountains, either leaving of their own accord or being chased out by the village gatekeepers. Mountains stand for freedom and self-expression, but also isolation and otherness. For the sensitive village woman, for the perceptive poet, the yamamba becomes both a pitiable figure and a powerful symbol of independence. As Noriko Mizuta’s poems unfurl, the yamamba grows beyond the limiting vision of witch or hag and merges into nature itself: untamed, unnamed, unimaginable.


Yamamba’s Silence 1


She birthed them

like oleaster seeds

one after another

And fed them

their whole bodies swelling,


She nursed them

brimming with falling pomegranate seeds

gathering them one by one

wiping away the oozing liquid

sheltering them in her palm.


Abandoned memories

in the alder’s shade

Waves of mountains, layer upon layers

Left-over dreams

Picking through pebbles


She birthed them

one after another

She fed them

breath by breath

She nursed them

Until her breasts wrinkled,

one by one.


Within the torn wing

A hollow left by eaten grass

The repair of the birthing hut

can wait until tomorrow


山姥の沈黙 1




あとから あとから

















あとから あとから


一息 一息



一本 一本



食べた 草むらの窪み






Yamamba’s Silence 2


She left



the border

and walked

mountain after mountain

of linked dreams

strode over and over the dateline




She ran

like the falcon

like the wildcat

like speed itself

She ate

like a coyote


like a deer

tearing, chewing

like a cow

lying stretched

She ruminated

and slept

curling her body into a small shrine

entrusting her limbs to the earth

her hair a dwelling place for insects

braided with slim fungi

A birthing bed 

for humus

for all things


山姥の沈黙 2










日付線をまたぎ またぎ









襲い 貪り


剥ぎ 噛み














Yamamba’s Silence 3


Sleeping Yamamba


Bodies in a row

Sleeping giants 

women who read 


women who draw



who try to grasp

their limbs

with a grip so strong

it does not stop time


unobscured by mist

The women

who try to return 

the sleeping yamamba’s


uncanny gaze

The watching woman dozes too

Her breath

Not erased by the wind

The listening woman naps


their bellies swell

their bodies relax, 

the sleeping big women 


beyond the mountains

the women who do not sleep,

the women who wake

山姥の沈黙 3



























腹 膨らませ







Works Cited:

Bullock, Julia. 2015. Burning Down the House: Fantasies of Liberation in the Era of "Women's 

Lib". Japanese Language and Literature, 49 (2), 233-257.

Copeland, Rebecca, 2005. “Mythical Bad Girls: The Corpse, The Crone, and the Snake.” In 

Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley eds. Bad Girls of Japan. New York. Palgrave MacMillan: 15-32.

King, Emerald. 2008. “The Mountain Witch at the Train Station: The Yamamba and the Shōjo in 

Aoyama Nanae’s Hitori Biyori.” Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies: 1-17.



Rebecca Copeland

Rebecca Copeland is Professor of Japanese literature at Washington University in St. Louis. A writer of fiction and literary criticism and a translator of Japanese literature, her stories travel between Japan and the American South and touch on questions of identity, belonging, and self-discovery. Co-editor of Yamamba: In Search of the Mountain Witch, along with Linda C. Ehrlich, she is also the author of the novel The Kimono Tattoo (Brother Mockingbird Publishers, 2021).

Noriko Mizuta

Noriko Mizuta is a poet, translator, comparative literature scholar, former professor at the University of Southern California, former president of Jōsai International University, chancellor of Jōsai Educational Corporation, and current chancellor and director of the International Institute for Media and Women’s Studies. Along with Kyoko Selden, Dr. Mizuta was a pioneer in the translation of works by modern Japanese women writers, beginning with the anthology Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction (1991). She also forged the field of feminist literary criticism in Japan, as represented by her 1981 study Hiroin kara hiiroo e: josei no jiga to hyōgen (From Heroine to Hero: Female Self and Expression), and she was among the first to explore the metaphorical power of the yamamba.

Marianne Tarcov

Marianne Tarcov is an Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She is at work on a book project titled Screening Open Secrets of War, Mass Culture, and Hometown in Twentieth-Century Japanese Poetry. Her translations of modern Japanese poetry have appeared in Asymptote, Poetry Kanto, Octopus, and elsewhere, and her translations have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.