See a Yuki Onna? Meet the modern version, unless you’re her lova, chances are you’re a gonna
May 2, 2019
Wendigos, chupacabras, succubus, the list goes on and on for monsters that exist. Every culture has written or had an idea of some kind of being that is different than humans physically and by appearance but, either have human characteristics or resembles closely to something that is known from their world. The same goes for the ancient Japanese peoples who created the Yuki Onna, or snow woman. Throughout the years of her existence, she has undergone a few changes from the original legend in which she was supposedly put down in ink. Over the past centuries, different versions of the Yuki Onna have come to be in the different regions of Japan however, the general basics of the snow woman remain the same such as she appears during extreme colds or blizzards and can be a ruthless killer. With such an interesting monster being created around the 13th century in Japan, one wonders how she came to be and why the most popular version of today is different than what once was.
Before we can begin to understand just how the Yuki Onna came to life, it is important to know a little background about the people who spawned the legend. The people of early Japan were very spiritual believing in a form of animistic religion, basically meaning that everything important item to them or things of nature had some kind of spirit residing in them. This is a very common theme for cultures during the beginnings of humanity as it is easy to explain why certain natural phenomenons happen by suggesting that it is the work of a spirit. This is why snow, cold nights, and blizzards are associated with the spirit of the Yuki Onna. Another thing to note is that most people of Japanese descent are of a white hue, they also had a patriarchal society which explains the appearance of the Yuki Onna as well as why a beautiful woman tricks men into coming to her and then devouring their living essence. With that out of the way, we can now dive into the original from of the Yuki Onna. As previously mentioned, her known origins on written record begin in the 13th century Japan where her legend is transcribed by a monk however, according to this story he was told of the snow woman by a friend of his which means that her true origins go back even further, just not on a written account as far as we know. When she is described by the monk in his account, she has a beautiful body and translucent like pale white skin and kimono with long white hair. In this version, she is gentle and simply appears at the cusp of spring according to ancient-origins.net. Later accounts and legends of her are not so pleasant and depict her more like a monster than a spirit. What’s the importance of the legend you may ask, besides it being one of the depictions of the Yuki Onna that I will compare to, it also goes along with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s first thesis in his paper titled, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Cohen is a PHD graduate in the study of monster mythology and in his paper, he lists out several theses the first however, being an important one to the Yuki Onna. The first thesis he lays out is that “A monsters body is a cultural body (Cohen 4).” This is extremely notable in the Yuki Onna, as I mentioned above the people of early japanese society had practiced a form of animism which was a huge part of their culture and still is today with parts of Shinto being based on this early religion. Thus, it is no surprise that in order to explain the beauty of snow, they associated snowfall with a beautiful woman with pale skin as white as snow, and dressed in all white continuing with the theme of snow. This is just the beginning for the tale of the Yuki Onna, by no means is it the end nor is it the best or most popular.
In the early 20th century, a man of greek and irish descent travelled to the islands of Japan where he eventually became a japanese citizen after he supposedly married the daughter of a samurai. According to Garth Haslem, author of anomalyinfo.com -an online database with articles about the origins of monsters or their popularized roots,- Lafcadio Hearn also known by his adopted japanese name Koizumi Yakumo is said to have first written down the more popular tale of the Yuki Onna. Hearn was supposedly told this story by a local farmer in a city which is now a part of modern day Tokyo. What’s even more fascinating is how the legend of the Yuki Onna changed from being a peaceful spirit to what is now known today in the version Hearn heard from the farmer. In this version, there were two men travelling in search of firewood but soon were in the middle of a huge snowstorm and as a result had to find shelter. They eventually made it into a little cabin and as they were sleeping, a Yuki Onna broke into the cabin and sucked the life out of one of the men, she then turned to young man and made a deal with him which allowed him to live so long as he never speaks of that night. About a year after that night, he married a woman and they had ten children together, as the years passed, the continued to live together in peace raising their children. One night amidst the candle light, the man noticed his wife’s facial features remembered the Yuki Onna that he had met so long ago, he then began to tell his wife of that night after she noticed he was looking at her, she listened patiently and when he finished, she was outraged as it turns out she was that same Yuki Onna. She was infuriated with him that she broke her promise and told him that had it not been for the children, she would have killed him in an instant for breaking his promise, she then disappeared in an instant never to be seen again (Haslem par 6-7). Here the Yuki Onna is now seen in its most popular depiction, a beautiful woman of white hue and clothing that is capable of killing in order to feed but is also able to fall in love with mortals and even bear children. Despite this, she is also able to become enraged usually resulting in the death of the enrager or she will simply vanish into the snow. Although she is a creature of japanese culture, she has made it into several films in japan and in many parts of the world. She has even come into some video games which have been very popular over the years such as Nioh. How does this version of the Yuki Onna resonate with what we think of when we say monster? Once again referring to Cohen’s Monster Theory, this version of the Yuki Onna relates to his third thesis: “The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis” which pretty much means that monsters bring about crisis. One clear way that the Yuki Onna brings about a crisis is through her killing people. Remember that the Yuki Onna is a snow woman which appears during times of snowfall and with this new version, appears with a great deal of certainty when the snowfall becomes heavy or there is a blizzard. While she does not bring upon this weather, she does appear alongside it and adds to the danger of the weather conditions by luring those unlucky enough to find themselves amongst the harsh climates into their demise, so she essentially is the harbinger of the crisis of death either by freezing to death from the snow, or by coming into her clutches and having her literally suck the life out of you. That being said, she can also relate to Cohen’s fourth theory which is, “The Monster Dwells at the Gates of difference.” The reason being as to why her modern version and even her origin complies with this theory is she is always described as a beautiful woman with white skin and is said to lure men. She is also said to have a translucent kimono which should in theory reveal much of her body thus giving her a sexual appeal and characteristic, the difference is that in the modern version she is capable of either killing you by “kissing” you in such a way that she takes your breath away (forever) or if she finds you attractive enough, she will find a way into your heart unbeknownst to you and you’ll find yourself shortly after married to a beautiful woman which of course is her. Due to these facts, she aligns herself nicely with the fourth theory because she challenges the social norms with each version directly correlating with a contrast of normality and fantasy, by having such a beautiful complexion, by being powerful in the more recent version, and by killing men and feeding off their lives. There is no doubt that the correlation between Cohen’s theories and the Yuki Onna are present which only strengthens the point of her being a monster. Most importantly, we should note that the change that has become the most popular version of her makes her the most monster like and yet the most human, this being the version where she killed a man and falls in love with the young man she spared. It’s not a difficult task to see where the monster resides in her but where is the more humanistic side to her? It’s in her ability to fall in love of course! Besides falling in love, she bares children who we can safely assume do not turn into monsters as it does not mention anything in Hearns tale, and does not kill her husband when he breaks the promise he made to the Yuki Onna; It is important to note that she says she does this because of the children but, I would argue that this makes her more human as she does care deeply for her children and spares their father rather than leaving them to fend for themselves like animals or monsters truly showing the change in culture, the attitudes people have towards monsters, and the morphication of the tale.
What once started out as a legend told by a friend to a monk has now become an iconic monster that has made its way into several films, video games, and other forms of entertainment. Though the monsters name has remained the same, her background has not and this beautiful monster has become even more beautiful by showing us an amazing and incredible blend of fearsome power and actions as well as the gentleness, comfort, and love as a mother and wife. Thanks to Hearn’s version of the Yuki Onna, she will remain a part of Japan’s culture indubitably and will always be a figure of interest for other cultures to toy around with in their own respective platforms. It is important to see her changes after all these years, and appreciate the fact that her legend has been kept alive for so long, much longer than Dracula or Frankenstein. It is also interesting how we can see the change in culture change the monster and create variations or alternate versions of her to meet with the new fears, wants, and desires. It is safe to say that there is no monster quite as unique and imbedded in thier (Japans) culture such as the Yuki Onna. So the next time you see snow, remember the tale of the Snow Woman and be wary to travel into the harsh climates of the heavy snowfall.
Monster Annotated Bib
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory, pp. 3–25., doi:10.5749/j.ctttsq4d.4.
This is an essay and thesis paper that we are looking over in class which discusses seven proposed theories that applies to all the monsters of every culture and that have existed
Haslem, Garth. “Yuki-Onna: the Snow Woman of Japan.” Anomalies: the Strange & Unexplained, 31 Dec. 2016, anomalyinfo.com/Topics/yuki-onna-snow-woman-japan.
Discusses the origins of the spirit, however rather than that being its main focus, it talks about how it has appeared in films lately. It mentions how we have put them into interest in recent times, adapted games out of the legend and have even put them into some new games themselves.
Mayer, Matthew. “Yokai.com.” Yuki Onna – Yokai.com, 2019, yokai.com/yukionna/.
This short little article gives some backstory as to how this spirit came about, and how they interact with humans. It gives 2 stories each with the spirit and different things about them.
sohma, Marina. “A Heart as Cold as Ice? The Japanese Legend of Yuki-Onna, the Beautiful Yet Dangerous Snow Woman.” Ancient Origins, Ancient Origins, 13 Dec. 2016, http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/heart-cold-ice-japanese-legend-yuki-onna-beautiful-yet-dangerous-snow-woman-007186.
This website tells about the origin stories of the yuki onna in japanese history. Besides that, it also talks about what they do to humans, how they live, eat, where they can be found, and how the legend still persists today.