Demonic Dames: Watch out for the Vengeful Women of Japanese Legends

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Japan has had stories about oni (demons or ogres) and yuurei (ghosts) for hundreds of years. As time passes, new vengeful spirits continue to appear and their stories are told even in the present day. The following is a series of hannya - women who became oni during their lifetimes due to hatred or jealousy and who have become, in time, characters in the noh theater (classical Japanese musical drama). Nobody would want to have to deal with such spirits.


Kiyohime was a woman upset with her lover. This man, the priest Anchin, became distant towards her and eventually stopped loving her. Realizing that she had been dumped, Kiyohime followed him until he reached a river. There, she turned into a snake and swam below his boat. Terrified by her monstrous form, the monk sought refuge at a temple where the priests hid him under a big bell. Kiyohime found the monk by sensing his smell. Upset, she coiled around the bell and began to hit it with her tail. Then she breathed fire upon the bell - melting it and killing the man who had dumped her.

‘Kiyohime Changes from a Serpent’ by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.

‘Kiyohime Changes from a Serpent’ by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka. ( Public Domain )


There are numerous legends about the snow woman, Yuki-onna. She is usually described as wearing a white kimono with the right side over the left side (a kimono is always tied left over right, as right over left is reserved only for the dead). She has white skin and very long hair. She appears when it is snowing and floats above the snow like a ghost. Yuki-onna freezes her victims and then kisses them in order to feed upon the human life essence, resulting in the victim’s death.

Painting of Yuki-onna in the moonlight.

Painting of Yuki-onna in the moonlight. ( Public Domain )


Having their origins in the medieval period, the yamauba are a kind of ogre women. Originally, they were women marginalized by society and forced to live alone in the mountains. It is said that some yamauba like to eat human flesh. There are numerous stories about yamauba. One popular tale tells of a yamauba which hosts a woman who was about to give birth. That yamauba planned to eat the newborn child. Another story says that while mothers are away from a village yamauba go to eat their children. To add to their frightening nature, it is said that they have more mouths hidden beneath their hair.

"Yamauba" from the Hyakkai Zukan by Sawaki Suushi.

"Yamauba" from the Hyakkai Zukan by Sawaki Suushi. ( Public Domain )


Uji no hashihime

Another legendary story is about Uji no hashihime. She was a woman whose husband fell in love with another. Extremely upset, she prayed to a deity to turn her into an oni in order to take revenge by killing her husband, his mistress, and his other relatives. In order to achieve this, Uji no hashihime bathed in the Uji River for 21 days, she combed her hair in order to look as if she had five horns, and she painted her body with red vermillion. Then, she killed all those who had trespassed against her. In addition to this, anyone who laid eyes on her instantly died of fear.

Hashihime as appearing in the Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari from 1853.

Hashihime as appearing in the Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari from 1853. ( Public Domain )


Another story about vengeance was made known to the public by the kabuki drama “Yotsuya kaidan”. This tells the tale of Oiwa, a woman married to Iemon, a ronin (“a masterless samurai”). Even though he was already married to Oiwa, Iemon wanted to wed a very rich local girl who had fallen in love with him. In order to put his plan into motion, he sent his wife some poisoned medicine. However, this was not strong enough to kill the woman; it only disfigured her. After seeing how ugly she looked and finding out how she had been betrayed, Oiwa accidentally killed herself with a sword. But afterwards, her disfigured face began to appear everywhere, haunting Iemon. Ultimately, Oiwa’s disfigured face appeared upon the face of Iemon’s new bride. Scared out of his wits, the man decapitated his new wife. Then Oiwa haunted Iemon until he finally embraced death himself.

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