Kwaidan Stories and Studies of Strange Things

Urami and Sympathetic Monstrosity: Examining Japanese Folklore

May 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

Early on in his Jungian analysis of Japanese female folk archetypes, Hayao Kawai posits that dangerous supernatural creatures can either represent misunderstood and marginalized people or inscrutably villainous forces of (human) nature, depending on the angle of analysis a reader applies to a tale. His, Akiko Baba’s, and Noriko Reider’s analyses make a case for characters like Yamamba and Yuki-Onna expressing very human feelings of coherent resentment, despite their inhumanly bloodthirsty actions. As readers in this course, we’ve frequently disagreed over how sympathetic one can feel toward any given murderous, cannibalistic, or otherwise violent character, usually based on a personal belief in whether or not their urami is justified. Yet, the possibility of a monster being like us, in the sense that one can locate an emotional or logical underpinning to their otherworldly desires, seems to be fundamental to the monster’s ability to express urami in a story. Since urami is crucially defined as an emotion arising from the inner state, the ura, of a character, some invitation into the monster’s ura is necessary for us to believe in its urami. In this way, we get to appreciate the human motives giving rise to supernatural violence. Justified or otherwise, urami monstrosity is sympathetic monstrosity.

On the outside, a monster is a literary figure that absolutely resists the reader’s sympathetic identification. Even when portrayed as a sentient anthropomorph, its chimeric and inherently fearsome body destabilizes the readers’ perception of it as a thinking being like themselves. Yamamba, with her grotesque maw on top of her head, and Shuten Doji, with his Carnivalesque parody of a human figure, clearly fit the traditional mold of a repulsive near-human beast. Yuki-Onna, like many ghosts in folklore around the world, lacks the physical vulgarity of obvious monsters, but her appearance of pallid undeath and her mercilessly swift killing power impress upon the reader that, like Yamamba, she is a malign non-human entity simulating a woman’s form. Without splitting hairs about whether or not a yurei like Yuki-Onna counts alongside the male and female Oni as a categorically monstrous type of yokai, we can say these three supernatural figures serve the same narrative function of monsters; they are creatures that evoke fear because they pose a threat to the protagonist, and because they represent that which is considered fearsome in the protagonist’s or the authors’ society.

Like many tropes of the fantastic, the appearance of a monster signifies the heightening of stakes in a narrative: the ensuing confrontation will have extraordinary consequences beyond the immediate concerns of the tale’s plot. In the generic Western hero’s journey of patriarchal maturation, the dragon-slaying signifies not just a single man’s escape from danger, but all men’s trial by fire into adulthood and self-determination. In our corpus of urami stories, we’ve often seen a solitary monster’s role expanded to represent the danger thought to be caused by an entire outgroup of people (senile elders in the Oni Mother story, unruly women in Buddhist stories) or the danger posed to whole in-groups by alien forces (city women’s abduction by rural bandits in Shuten Doji, a whole nation’s vulnerability to political machinations in Shiramine). Kawai and Reider grant the Japanese folk monsters they profile a grander symbolic role than just representational scariness. Their analyses suggest that Yuki-Onna and Yamamba have a secondary narrative function beyond acting as the bogeymen for traditional Japanese anxieties about two-faced women and geographic outsiders. There are possible interpretations of the two tales that cast these distinctive creatures in a sympathetic light, and thereby teach us the inner workings of an urami-focused thought process.

Kawai notes that, while the metaphorical danger of Yamamba might be drawn from the negative aspects of a universal, mysterious mother figure, the mountain hag’s motivation for endangering her victims comes from a palpable, relatable sense of shame. Quoting the poet Baba, Kawai suggests that rather than fear alone, one might also “feel pity for [the monster], knowing the effort she made in order to have relations with ordinary people” and having witnessed this effort betrayed by the meddling of mortal men. For Kawai, Yamamba becomes a sympathetic character when he considers the double shame she must feel when her grotesque form is revealed and her privacy is violated. In the version of the tale provided in the Appendix, the monster leaps up to attack the false shaman when he guesses at her hidden eating habits, shouting, “Grr! You must have watched me.” The revelation that a man knows of her shameful form triggers Yamamba’s anger and violence, but the monster’s dialogue indicates that she feels greater disgrace from the invasive way in which the man gained such knowledge. Baba sympathizes with the first of these iniquities, speculating that having her cover blown would be the worst thing to happen to a creature that has tried so hard to fit in. Kawai, on the other hand, sympathizes with Yamamba’s spoken cause for resentment, stating that “being looked at is the deepest wound for her.” Kawai aligns Yamamba’s enraged reaction with the bitterness of “the woman in ‘The Bush Warbler’s Home’ who sorrowfully had to leave this world because the ordinary man broke his promise.” Yamamba reacts with monstrous violence and the Bush Warbler woman reacts with sorrowful disappearance, but each figures responds to the same injustice of having her otherworldly nature revealed. The dichotomous reactions of the spirit and the monster both point to urami. The fit of cannibalism and the melancholic flight both arise from negative emotions in the unconscious – symbolized by the non-daily/non-male spaces of the spirit’s forbidden chamber and the monster’s kitchen – which are then brought out as a grudge against the person who inspired them, but ultimately do more harm to the person feeling such strong resentment.

Comparing these first two sides of Kawai’s female archetype reveals a folklorically-exaggerated dichotomy between the two most common urami reactions people have to being shamed. One can feel depressed and seek to hide from the situation (see manifestations of physical and mental illness in the storylines of Kiritsubo from Genji, Naoki from Confessions, the Fifth Nun from Zangemono, etc.) or one can feel enraged and confront it head on (as the demon women tend to do in Kanawa, Zangemono, Konjaku Monogatari, and the Dojoji Temple legend). The sympathetic monstrosity of Yamamba clarifies the logic of the latter reaction. Once we see her urami being instigated by of a man’s disrespect for her boundaries and her own shattered hopes toward fitting in, we can make better sense of her explosive rage. What had hitherto appeared as an inexplicable, perhaps innate, facet of Yamamba’s monstrosity, when viewed as an expression of urami, humanizes both the character and her extreme emotions. Interestingly enough, Yuki-Onna can be said to react in an intermediate fashion to Kawai’s two examples, as she threatens violence when her secret is out, but she disappears immediately before she can enact it. Her monstrosity is on full display before she even speaks to the protagonist, so we could guess at other, more ancient causes for her resentment. But, for the purposes of this analysis, we ought to just consider her transformation from wife into ghost, as triggered by the resentment she feels toward the promise-breaking husband. Perhaps Yuki-Onna is not able to match the ferocity of Yamamba because she can’t fit into the same metaphorical niche of unrestrained female fury. This appears to be the case in Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan version of the story, wherein the snow woman says “But for those children asleep there, I would kill you this moment!” to the man who betrays her. For all her monstrous, murderous rage, this version of Yuki-Onna is restrained by her motherly role from harming the father of her children in front of them. Yamamba, on the other hand, is comfortable with both mothering and killing; she lives mostly uninhibited by expectations of feminine aversion to violence. The key difference between the two is that, hailing from the mountains, Yamamba is a true outsider, whereas Yuki-Onna, though not of this world, has thoroughly integrated into normative human society. The natural elements may become capriciously dangerous every few winters, but city folk have learned to live with them in a way that still eludes them when relating to people from the mountains, whom Reider points out are frequently Othered as barbaric Oni.

The other main factor, age, that could lead one of the folk figures to be considered more duty-bound to mothering than to self-preservation, can be disregarded in this comparison between versions of the folktales in which both monsters appear as young wives. In her many years of playing the good wife O-Yuki, Yuki-Onna may have accumulated resentment against her husband, but until her husband finally betrays the secret she has asked him to indulge (a true indulgence, since he has only her murderous threats to bind him to his word), she cannot express it. We sympathize with her because in her terminal anger she also reveals her tragic attachment to the children she must abandon, now that the secret tethering her to the mortal realm is lost. Before disappearing, she tells the husband, “And now you had better take very, very good care of them; for if ever they have reason to complain of you, I will treat you as you deserve!” In her disappearance, Yuki-Onna shows how fiercely protective she is of her mortal family, and we see that like Yamamba, the snow woman expresses the deepest aspects of her humanity once urami has brought out her most monstrous behavior.

In comparison with the unambiguous roots of Yamamba’s bitterness (desire to keep her true form hidden, desire to keep the dignity of not being spied upon) the sources of Yuki-Onna’s resentment seem at first somewhat vague. It is never spelled out in the story why the secret of her identity binds Yuki-Onna to her husband, but one possibility is that it is meant to serve as a symbolic commitment to their unlikely marriage. What might at first seem like an arbitrary threat from an insensate monster could, in retrospect, be viewed as a highly intentional test of love. Since we know urami must have a cause, and Yuki-Onna’s threats of vengeance suggest she has a lot of urami, it’s not too far a reach to find the husband guilty of deeper insults to Yuki-Onna’s ura feelings than just blundering away her disguise. Considering the circumstances of the secret being let out, in which he tells his wife that his first encounter with the ghost was the “only time that [he] saw a being as beautiful as [her],” the husband’s failure to indulge her bizarre condition of mercy could actually be a failure of his implicit marital promise not to compare his wife with women from his past. Of course, it seems odd or unfair to have that rule hold even when they are different personas of the same woman.

Skepticism of Yuki-Onna’s motives, supposing that they might be skewed by jealousy or by a pre-meditated desire to find her husband at fault and have a reason to leave him, is thwarted by the unmistakable clarity of her threat. Before she appears as O-Yuki, Yuki-Onna has already told the husband-to-be, “If you ever tell anybody – even your own mother about what you have seen this night, I shall know it; and then I will kill you.” One could consider her urami unjustified, but is certainly not illogical. Its harshness adds to the authenticity of her emotion. Once again, like Yamamba, Yuki-Onna shows urami in her monstrosity and then humanity in her urami. The three sides of these characters are inextricably linked.


Hearn, Lafcadio. Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Boston, Mass.: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1904. Text quoted from Kawai, Hayao. The Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan. Dallas, Tex.: Spring Publications, 1988. Reider, Noriko T. Japanese Demon Lore Oni, from Ancient times to the Present. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2010.

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