Yuki Onna: Shining a spotlight on a Japanese folklore legend

By Staff Writer
March 02, 2022
In Japanese folklore, Yokai are referred to as ghosts, monsters or spirits that possess special characteristics that can evoke a range of emotional responses from intrigue to fear.
An 18th-century Japanese painting of ghostly woman in snow
The Yuki Onna, or Snow Woman, can bring tragedy to those who encounter her in the winter wilderness. (Yuki Onna (ゆき女), by artist Sawaki Suushi, from his 1737 work Hyakkai Zukan (百怪図巻))
The Yokai concept derives from Japan’s native Shinto religion. Its animist belief system gives spiritual life to anything in the natural world, including trees, rocks and rivers, known as kami, or native Japanese deities.
Japanese people are quite familiar with the phrase, ‘land of the gods’, (Shinkoku) to refer to the country of Japan. The phrase carries a more negative connotation today and is rarely used in modern conversation, given its ties to Imperial Japan’s expansion ambitions. Likewise, ‘land of the gods’ at one time meant a country where the emperor descends from the kami and reigns as a kami himself.

Yokai circulate in Japan lore as acceptable replacements to the outmoded expression, land of the gods. Some of the world’s most famous modern yokai are the intimidating Godzilla and entertaining Pokémon (an abbreviation for Pocket Monsters) that have been widely portrayed in film, anime, and games.

Yokai’s kanji characters (妖 怪) represent respectively the “attractive, bewitching” and “mystery, wonder” of the spirit world. One of the most attractive is Yuki Onna, otherwise known as snow woman, snow ghost, or even snow monster, depending on how she interacts with humans in different parts of Japan. Yuki Onna uses the kanji (yuki; snow) with (onna; woman) to mean Snow Woman.
River in a forest, covered in heavy snow
Travel between towns could be slow and dangerous in old Japan, especially in winter. This gave rise to stories of strange creatures and unexplained happenings.
Yuki Onna is a bit of a YouTube sensation; (See, for instance, YUKI-ONNA: THE SNOW WOMAN or Yuki Onna // Something Scary/Snarled), with a combined several million views.) Her global appeal is that she’s a character worthy of a thousand storied variations--appearing as a youthful but dangerous beauty, tall and with long black hair--or older and more like a snow hag.

Her movements leave no snow tracks as she is seen in some versions as a floating spirit who arrives, like smoke or fog, and is gone. She is commonly seen in a thin, white and summer-like kimono (known as yukata) that may expose her pale white skin or more like a ghost.

Japan’s version of a ‘fatal attraction,’ she is often depicted with piercing eyes that transfix and, at times, terrorize the gaze of those she preys upon. Her skin is as white and pale as blinding snow and her body freezing cold to the touch. Her behavior manifests differently, according to prefecture. In Niigata prefecture, she is said to act like a bogey woman who seeks out children who wander into her domain, the snowy forest land.

Stories about Yuki Onna in Japan are as diverse as every falling snowflake. In Tottori prefecture, she may appear as a beggar during a light snowstorm who asks for water, hot or cold. She grows larger from cold water but melts when offered warm water.
18th-century Japanese illustration of a ghost-like woman emerging from a snowy tree.
The Yuki Onna can be gentle and helpful, or fearsome and deadly. (Yuki Onna (雪女) by artist Toriyama Sekien, from his 1776 work Gazu Hyakki Yagyou (画図百鬼夜行)).
In Ibaraki, Fukushima, Akita and Fukui prefectures, she manifests as the Talking Snow Woman. If she first engages the person in conversation, then she may use that as a point of attack. If she is ignored altogether, then the penalty may be worse, with her first grabbing and then throwing the victim down a ravine. Her victims are never sure of her intentions, which makes her an exciting yokai, but one to be feared and respected for her cunning ways.

Yuki Onna is relatively well-known among folklore enthusiasts around the world since her legend extends from poetry in Japan’s Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) to films like Tokuzo Tanaka’s The Snow Woman (Kaidan Yukijorou) released in1968 or Kiki Sugino’s 2016 version. With her popularity expanding well outside Japan, she may be taken for granted in her native spirit country.

A century ago, British naturalist and explorer Richard Gordon Smith spent nine years in Japan compiling illustrated diaries that resulted in two core texts, Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan and Travel in the Land of the Gods: The Japan Diaries of Richard Gordon Smith. In both works, readers are introduced to Yuki Onna in her Snow Ghost/Spirit iteration.

In areas of Japan like Tohoku and Sapporo where winter snow can accumulate to six meters, humans can become victims to the elements. Smith describes how Yuki Onna manifests regionally: “Mysterious disappearances naturally give rise to fancies in a fanciful people, and from time immemorial the Snow Ghost has been one with the people of the North; while those of the South say that those of the North take so much saké that they see snow-covered trees as women.”

For his contributions to Japanese ethnology (‘the study of the characteristics of various peoples and the differences and relationships between them’), Richard Gordon Smith was awarded the Fourth Order of the Rising Sun in Japan, to those who have made distinguished achievements in international relations, promotion of Japanese culture, advancements in their field, development in welfare or preservation of the environment.
Aurora filling the sky over a snowy forest at night.
The Snow Woman embodies the unknown that may be encountered on cold winter nights.
The appeal of Snow Woman is that while many may have heard about her, her movements remain ephemeral like a fleeting snowstorm and her traits are ethereal, found outside the world we know through our senses. She is a haunting element who lives among us. One version of her is that she grew out of the spirit of a woman carrying a baby who perished in the frozen snow.

All one needs to ‘know’ the spirit of Yuki Onna is to believe in the spirit world she inhabits.
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