Willow trees have a lot of associations in East Asia. Because of their slender, soft, wavy branches, they have been considered since ancient times a symbol of feminine beauty. For a similar reason they have also been associated associated with ghosts since ancient times. The way the branches bend and flutter in the wind, and the way they can gently caress your cheek or steal your umbrella as you walk by makes them seem like they are possessed by a spirit. This is why you’ll see willow trees in a lot of East Asian ghost imagery.
Today’s yokai meets both of these criteria.
Yanagi onna is the ghost of a woman who died under the tree. Now her spirit haunts the tree.
Legend has it that a young woman was walking at night with her baby, when suddenly the wind became strong. She sought shelter under a nearby willow tree. However, in the fierce wind, she became entangled in the branches of the willow. Some of them wrapped around her throat. As she struggled the branches grew tighter and tighter, until she was strangled to death. Since then, every night, a haunting figure in the form of a woman carrying a baby would appear under that tree and call out: “Alas! You cursed willow tree!”
Yanagi onna is similar to a couple of other yokai. Specifically, she is most closely related to the ubume—a woman who died in childbirth and is unable to care for her baby, so she transforms into a horrifying yokai. Although scary, she is not here to harm people. She just laments for the baby that she is unable to care for.
A close comparison could also be made with kosodate yurei, although many people would point out that yanagi onna is a yokai, not a yurei. Most Japanese ghosts do not have feet; they are transparent from the legs down and just float around. Yet yanagi onna clearly stands on her feet. I think it’s kind of a fuzzy distinction at best, but if we’re talking strict classifications that is something to consider.
Want more yokai? Visit yokai.com and check out my yokai encyclopedias on amazon.com! Still want more? You can sign up for my Patreon project to support my yokai work, get original yokai postcards and prints, and even make requests for which yokai I paint next!