Yuki Onna, the snow ghost
“Yuki Onna” 雪女, also called the Snow (雪) Women (女)), is a yûrei (幽霊), a Japanese ghost belonging to the Yôkai (妖怪), a generic name for supernatural beings like spirits, demons and others monsters from the Japanese folklore. She has most significantly been represented in movies, books or video games. Numerous apparitions have related to her and her stories have been transmitted from generation to generation, giving life to the representative fantasy of fear and beauty.
Character description and history
Yuki Onna has been depicted as a tall woman, often described as being more than 10 feet tall, possessing great beauty. Though she has been described as having a serene appearance, she also emits a feeling of terror. It has been said that her devil eyes could kill anyone who looked at her. Depending on which version you read, she could have black or white hair. Her lips are blue, reminiscent of ice or a person that has frozen to death, and her skin is so pale that it is often described as transparent. Her facial features and hair are only slightly distinguishable in the middle of her pale landscape. She is sometimes described as wearing a kimono, but often naked, increasing the confusion between her and the snowy landscape. She moves without leaving trails, floating as it would seem, so she most likely doesn’t have feet like all other Japanese ghosts. If she feels threatened, she turns into a thick fog or snow. In some legends, she is described as a one-legged, one-eyed woman, like the Shikkenken (though that description is uncommon).
From a psychological point of view, she could be the personification of winter and fear inspired by blizzards, especially in strong snowfall regions where winter can be harsh, as in the North of Japan or middle of Honshû, a mountainous and isolated region. She could also be the explanation for the many bodies found of missing people after snowstorms, mixed with the peaceful view of beautiful snowy landscapes.
She is said to originally be the spirit of a person who died in these harsh weather conditions, or a lunar divinity. Until the 18th century, she was represented as an evil spirit. But a human representation appeared more frequently thereafter.
Occurrence contexts and attack types
Yuki Onna appears during the night, when there are snowstorms, and her actions towards human-beings is dependent on the legend and geographic locations. She is often linked to children, and some of her aspects make us think of folklore from western countries- not only ghosts but also vampires and succubus.
She mostly appears in front of travelers and freezes them with her breath, or forces them to lose their way in the storm until they die from cold.
In Aomori prefecture, Yuki Onna is often depicted as a woman holding a child in her arms, appearing most often in front of parents who have lost their own child, asking them to hold her child. When the parents take the child, it would grow so suddenly that they could no longer move. In these stories, they would eventually die from the cold. Of course, the child represents a large block of ice.
She has also been known to take on more direct and brutal actions - attacking houses with her breath, causing gusts of wind to open doors. The victims of these actions would then die from the cold – often times in their sleep. In Niigata prefecture, the story says she can tear a child's liver off. In Miyagi prefecture, she has been known to suck people's blood and life from their body.
Legends et tales
The best known legend about Yuki Onna was written by Lafcadio Hearn (Yakumo Koizumi 1850-1904) in “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things” (1904). A farmer from Musashi province (Today, Tokyo and Saitama prefectures) might have told him this story.
One day, two loggers, Minokichi and Mosaku, were surprised by a snowstorm. Not able to take the ferry to go back home, they looked for a shed to spend the night. During the freezing night, Minokichi woke up and saw a beautiful feminine creature blowing her breath onto old Mosaku and taking his life at the same time. Surprised and angry at being discovered, she decided to spare Minokichi because of his youth and beauty. But she made him swear never to tell another soul what had happened. Several years later, he was married to a wonderful woman and had ten children. One night, he told the whole story to his wife. Furious, she revealed to him that she was Yuki Onna. She again decided to spare his life because of the children they had had. She wanted him to look after them, and promised to come back to him if he were not a good father. She then melted and vanished forever.
In Sôgi Shokoku Monogatari, Yuki Onna can be seen at the edge of a bamboo forest, wearing a kimono and looking strange to those who see her. She seems to be twenty years old, almost transparent and about 10 feet tall.
In Oguni region (Yamagata prefecture), Yuki Onna, called Yuki Jorô - or the Courtesan of Snows- appears on nights with heavy snowfall and a full moon. She is a lunar goddess who came down to Earth, but was unable to go back to her world. She is also known for kidnapping children.
Another legend says that a hunter and his child were in the Okuchichibu mountains, located in the center of Honshu (called the Japanese Alps), when they were surprised by the blizzard and could no longer see. At night, the silhouette of a woman appeared. The father forbid his child to watch or talk to her but the young boy did glance at her just before she left. He described her as a very white woman wearing a red striped kimono that stared at them before vanishing in the storm. When they returned home, the father explained to his son he must never speak to the woman lest he be devoured.
Only few protections seem to work against this spirit. According to several legends, like Tsurara Onna (or “stalactite woman” - born from a stalactite broken by a man she married) she is very sensitive to hot water. One day, she was asked to take a hot bath in order to relax. The Tsurara Onna immediately melted away in the bath, leaving only a puddle on the surface. The legend says that a Tsurara Onna who has never melted can turn back into a stalactite in order to pierce the heart of the one who betrayed her.
There are too many legends on the Yuki Onna to state them all here. However, it is safe to say that the legends seem to be located mainly in the northern half of Honshu. I could not find any reference to her in the Northern island of Hokkaido, although it is known for its extremely cold climate.
After reading many of these legends, however, it is no wonder that this kind of character haunts the imagination of local inhabitants just like snow queens and princesses in western countries.
Yuki Onna is an important folkloric character that you should know because she is present in numerous movies such as “Kwaidan” (directed by Kobayashi), or “Dreams” (directed by Kurosawa). Examples also include some known manga like Bleach, Ranma ½, Yu Yu Hakusho or One Piece. She is a part of the Japanese's imagination and everyday life. Parents often tell her stories to frighten children who would not go to bed. It is up to you to decide what is true and what is false about her...
Sources on Japanese creatures
- Best website for Japanese creatures and folklore: http://www.obakemono.com/obake/yukionna/
- A database relating to those creatures, and texts mentioning them (in Japanese): http://www.nichibun.ac.jp/YoukaiDB2/info/index.html
Various names of the Yuki Onna
- 雪娘 : Yuki Musume = the daughter of snow
- 雪女子 : Yuki Onago = the snow woman
- 雪女郎 : Yuki Jorô = the courtesan of snows
- 雪姉さ : Yuki Anesa = the sister of snow
- 雪乳母 : Yuki Onba = the snow nurse
- 雪バンバ : Yuki Banba (Ehime)
- 雪女房 : Yuki Nyôbô = the wife of snow
- 雪姫 : Yuki Hime = the snow Princess
- 氷柱女 : Tsurara Onna = wife of stalactites