Kiyohime is one of those rare yokai who started off as a human, but whose emotions ran so deep, she ended up transforming into something much more monstrous… You can read her story of love and vengeance below!
The Meaning Behind her Name
- Kanji: 清姫 , the first character 清 means pure, or clear, the second character 姫 means princess or lady (a common title for a noblewoman at the time). In this case, a direct translation of her name might be Lady Kiyo. She was also known simply by her first name, as Kiyo.
- Pronunciation:きよひめ or Kiyo-hime
A Handsome Priest and a Young Woman
At the time of Emperor Daigo, lived a handsome young priest named Anchin. Every year he would go on a pilgrimage from Mutsu to Kumano. On the way, Anchin would rest at the manor of Masago no Shōji (a local village head), which was located along the banks of the Hidaka river.
Now, Masago no Shōji had a young daughter named Kiyo. Over the years, Kiyo fell in love with the attractive Anchin, and believed he liked her as well. Kiyo was a lively young girl. Unfortunately, she also liked to cause trouble around the manor. So Anchin tried to convince her to behave, by telling her, jokingly, that if she behaved, then he would marry her, and she could return with him to Mutsu.
Although to Anchin, it was just a joke, Kiyo took it seriously. She was very obedient while he was gone, eagerly awaiting his coming each year. The year she became of marriageable age, as Anchin was on his way to Kumano, Kiyo reminded Anchin of what he had promised her.
Anchin was embarrassed that she had taken his joke seriously. He lied, telling Kiyo that he would indeed marry her, when he returned from Kumano. But, on his return towards Mutsu, he decided to go around the manor instead, avoiding the young girl still waiting for him.
Kiyohime Pursues Anchin
When Kiyohime heard the news that the priest was not stopping at their manor, she realized that Anchin had lied to her. Full of sadness at his betrayal, she ran out of the house, not even bothering to put on her shoes. She ran after him down the road towards the Dojo-ji temple.
Anchin, seeing her catch up, asked the boatman Chikanobu to help him cross the swollen Hidaka river. He then requested that the boatman not help Kiyohime cross. Anchin was relieved after reaching the far shore, believing that he had finally escaped from Kiyohime’s pursuit.
However, it was too soon for Anchin to relax. Kiyohime, full of grief and anger at the priest’s lies, dove straight into the Hidaka river. As she was tossed by the waves, her body transformed into a giant serpent, or dragon. With her new form she easily crossed the raging torrent and continued to chase after Anchin, all the way to the Dojo-ji temple.
The Bell of Dojo-ji
The priests at Dojo-ji, seeing the transformed Kiyohime, hid Anchin beneath the large, bronze bonshō bell. But not even the metal of the bell could stop her. Kiyohime twisted her long body around the bell, and began to breathe fire. The her fury became an incandescent heat, hot enough to melt the bell’s metal. As the heat rose, Anchin hiding inside, was roasted to death.
Although Kiyohime’s vengeance was complete, her heart was empty, as she had killed the man she loved. She dove into the Hidaka river, drowning herself, to follow him even in death.
Another (Happier?) Ending
However, in some versions, the story does not end there:
Some time after the death of Kiyohime and Anchin, an elderly priest of the Dojo-ji temple saw a serpent in a dream. The snake told the priest that he was Anchin, who had now transformed into a snake as well. The snake Anchin asked the priest to deliver him and Kiyohime from their suffering. When the priest awoke, he performed a ceremony for the two snakes, saving both of them and allowing them to ascend.
The Records of Kiyohime’s Story
Her story was first recorded in the Honchō Hokke Reigenki (Tales of the Lotus) (c. 1040), a collection of Buddhist miracle stories.
Thereafter, the Konjaku Monogatarishū (Tales of Times Now Past), a collection of folktales dating back to the Heian era, recorded her story as well. In the Konjaku Monogatari the story’s title is: How a Monk of the Dōjōji in the Province of Kii copied the Lotus Sutra and Brought Salvation to Two Serpents. Ueda Akinari later included another version of her story in the Ugetsu Monogatari.
Kiyohime’s story was also transformed into the noh play Dōjō-ji. It was so wildly popular that another version was written for the Kabuki stage as well.
Kiyohime is a classic depiction of a Hannya, or powerful and vengeful female demon. In the noh plays, the actor portraying her wears a Hannya mask, like the one seen below.
Finally, you can read another (very different) version of her story from Japanese Fairy Tales by Grace James, in my collection of Japanese folklore here!
Kiyohime in Modern Media
- Kiyohime is one of the 12 HiMEs in the anime series My-HiME.
- In the game For Honor, the Aramusha character has a customizable sword gear set named “Kiyohime’s Embrace”.
- She is both a Lancer and Berserker Class Servant in the mobile game Fate/Grand Order.
- Kiyohime is a villain and collectable spirit in the mobile game onmyoji.
- She is a demon in the Megami Tensei video game series.
For Further Reading on Kiyohime
- Firstly, the Story of Kiyohime (in English) from the Konjaku Monogatarishū: Allen, Bruce, and Naoshi Kooriyama. Japanese Tales from Times Past: Stories of Fantasy and Folklore from the Konjaku Monogatari Shu. Tuttle Publishing, 2015.
- Another Version, from the Ugetsu Monogatari: Ueda, Akinari, and Leon M. Zolbrod. Ugetsu Monogatari or Tales of Moonlight and Rain: a Complete English Version of the Eighteenth-Century Japanese Collection of Tales of the Supernatural. Routledge, 2011.
- The Noh Play version of Kiyohime’s story: Keene, Donald. Twenty Plays of the No Theatre. Columbia University Press, 1970.
- In addition, you can read a discussion of the Noh play featuring Kiyohime: Klein, Susan Blakeley. “When the Moon Strikes the Bell: Desire and Enlightenment in the Noh Play Dojoji.” Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 1991, p. 291., doi:10.2307/132744.
- Another version of Kiyohime’s story (online): The Learning of Love (A Japanese Folktale)
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