The Yuki-Onna, Queen of the Yokai: “Her touch brings freezing death!”

ABOVE: An Edo period ilustration of a Yuki-Onna, courtesy of WikiCommons.

The Yuki-Onna, the female snow-spirit with the icy touch of death, was immortalized in Lafcadio Hearn’s retelling of the folktale in Kwaidan, and also Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 film adaptation of four stories from that book. The legends from the snowy, northern parts of Japan generally describe her as an evil, ghostly presence, luring travelers and mountain climbers to their deaths, or freezing them solid with her icy kiss.

Hearn relates the story that has the Yuki-Onna as an almost sympathetic antagonist. In this version, two woodcutters are trapped in a blizzard, but find shelter in a derelict hut and wait there until the storm has passed. During the night, the younger man wakes up to see a pale, ghostly woman in a white kimono, bending over his companion. She is kissing him, leaving his entire body covered in frost. The Yuki-Onna stands, tells the younger man she is leaving him alive because of his youth and good looks, but if he tells anyone what he saw, she will return and kill him instantly.

The young man finds his way back to civilization and resumes his life, not telling anyone the truth of how his companion was killed. Years later, he meets a woman called Oyuki (snow) and falls in love (he does not appear to be very genre-savvy). They get married and have children. One night, he says to his wife – “I cannot help thinking that you remind me of someone. Long ago, I had a strange experience in a blizzard…” and he relates the story. His wife promptly changes into the Yuki-Onna, and says, “I said that if you ever tell anyone what you saw, I would kill you. You have betrayed me, husband – but for the sake of the children, I shall let you live.”

Then she ‘melts’ and is never seen again. Hearn does not specify whether she literally melts into a pool of icy water, or just fades away – but you get the picture.

But could she exist?

To answer that question, I return once more to James Kakalios, and “The Physics of Superheroes” (Chapter 14 – Mutant Meteorology, see previous posts on Yokai on this blog).

Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

How is it possible that the Yuki-Onna can create freezing temperatures at will? To do this, let’s say she is able to lower the temperature of her body and her immediate surroundings to less than 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and to create ice by condensing the water vapor always present in the air. What she is actually doing is removing energy in the form of heat. The laws of physics dictate that any heat that she’s able to subtract from her victims and environment must be compensated for by an amount of heat delivered somewhere else and, given the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the heat expelled is most likely greater than the heat removed. Refrigerators remove heat from an enclosed space, but this heat must be deposited elsewhere (given off to the outside surroundings via the condenser). The question is, where does the Yuki-Onna deposit the excess heat generated when she lowers the temperature of her surroundings? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you … the Kaji-Onna!

Image courtesy of Wallpaper13 and Pandora Journey.

A Yokai with the paranormal power of controlling heat and flames! Two individuals linked through quantum entanglement! At one woman’s touch, everything freezes. At the other woman’s touch, everything burns.

Okay, so the Kaji-Onna doesn’t exist in Japanese mythology. But if she did, that would explain a whole bunch of stuff – including the Ame-Onna.

The ability to control thermal gradients would also enable this Yokai to influence meteorological phenomenon. Essentially, weather is simply a matter of the atmosphere absorbing energy in the form of sunlight. Wind, rain and snow are all governed by variations in the amount of this sunlight energy absorbed by the atmosphere.

Let’s say that a Yokai could alter atmospheric temperature variations in space and time at will. She could even fly by controlling thermal gradients through the process of convection. If she can control the local temperature, then she can vary barometric pressure and humidity at will, and so cause rain, typhoons, blizzards, and even generate thunderstorms … thus explaining the Ame-Onna, the female specter who is said to be a harbinger of torrential downpours.

Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

If we consider the Yuki-Onna, Kaji-Onna, Ame-Onna, and create a new member of the Japanese supernatural pantheon, the Tsuchi-Onna (Earth-Woman), we then have an ensemble that represents the western concept of the four classical elements, earth, water, fire, and air! The Yuki-Onna would count for ‘air’ – unless you want to create a Kaze-Onna.

These characters could either be good or bad, but could easily represent the range of the four humors – sanguine (snow), choleric (fire), melancholic (earth), and phlegmatic (water).

Say, wouldn’t it be a good idea if that team-up was used in fiction? 

Well, that’s what J P Catton thought, so the Yuki-Onna, Kaji-Onna, Ame-Onna and Tsuchi-Onna turn up as a team of hired assassins with elemental super-powers, hunting Reiko Bergman and her friends in “Voice of the Jewel” – the explosive finale to the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy! You can find it here and the first two books here and here. 


About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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