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Kuchisake-onna: The Legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman

There's no good way to answer the Kuchisake-onna's dreaded question...

There's no good way to answer the Kuchisake-onna's dreaded question...

Japan has no shortage of stories regarding vengeful ghosts, ghouls, and supernatural entities. Few, however, have inspired as much fear as Kuchisake-onna: the slit-mouthed woman. Indeed, her story has not only inspired films, books, video games, and late-night tales, but genuine mass hysteria and panic.

But who is the slit-mouthed woman? Where did she come from, and what is it about her that terrifies people so much? Let's take a deep dive into one of Japan's most enduring legends.

Who Is Kuchisake-onna?

According to legend, Kuchisake-onna is a malevolent spirit, also known as an onryō, that haunts dark alleyways and streets of Japan at night in search of victims.

She is described as a beautiful woman in a blood-red dress, with alluring eyes framed by long dark hair and a gentle voice that guides strangers towards her. However, beneath a surgical mask she wears around her face are horrific scars running from the corners of her mouth to her ears.

"Do You Think I Am Beautiful?"

If encountered by someone, she will ask them if they think she is beautiful. If the person answers no, she will instantly kill them with the long metal scissors she carries around. But if the person answers yes, she will remove her mask to reveal her mutilated face before repeating the question.

Once again, a no will result in the same fate. A yes, meanwhile, will result in Kuchisake-onna cutting the victim's face in such a manner as to mirror her disfigurement.

Escaping Kuchisake-Onna

According to some legends, mutilation is the best outcome a person can hope for if they're unfortunate enough to meet the slit-mouthed woman. But even then, some variations of the tale suggest that Kuchisake-onna will return to kill the individual in their sleep. Others propose that the victim will ultimately be destined to become an onryō themselves.

Most stories say that running from Kuchisake-onna is pointless since she keeps reappearing wherever one turns. And not answering her questions isn't an option either, as staying quiet will just get you killed.

How to Outsmart the Slit-Mouthed Woman

However, a few tricks can supposedly outwit and help someone escape Kuchisake-onna. One of the most notable is to describe her appearance as 'average' or 'so-so,' which will confound her long enough to allow a person to escape. It is also said that if a person throws money or hard candies, she will stop to pick these up, providing an opportunity to run away.

Kuchisake-onna in a scene from Ehon Sayoshigure by Hayami Shungyōsai, 1801

Kuchisake-onna in a scene from Ehon Sayoshigure by Hayami Shungyōsai, 1801

The Origins of Kuchisake-onna

Most retellings of Kuchisake-onna say that she committed adultery during her life and that her vengeful husband mutilated her face in revenge. It's believed that the story may have originated in feudal Japan as a cautionary tale about a samurai's concubine who betrayed him.

Understandably, today, Kuchisake-onna's betrayal is seen in a more sympathetic light, with her husband often assuming the role of a crazed and jealous man. As a result, many view her tale as a symbol of cultural anxieties surrounding gender repression and beauty ideals.

Some variations of the tale deviate significantly from the original and suggest that Kuchisake-onna got her scars some other way. For example, one story says that her face was mutilated in a car crash. Another story is that she was an inmate of an insane asylum who cut her own face.

The Kuchisake-onna Legend Once Caused Mass-Hysteria in Japan

Though the tale of the slit-mouthed woman is hundreds of years old, it resurfaced as a modern urban legend in the '70s following numerous reports of sightings from children. Rumors surrounding the story became so widespread that there was a genuine fear that someone or something was actually prowling the streets in search of victims.

Things got so bad that police issued warnings against approaching people in masks, and parents made their children walk to school in groups. Authorities even arrested one prankster they found dressing up as the spirit to scare people.

Things eventually ran their course, and today the slit-mouthed woman doesn't quite inspire the same level of fear or new coverage it once did.

Kuchisake-onna in Pop Culture

Unsurprisingly, Kuchisake-onna has made numerous appearances on various forms of pop culture media. She notably made a cameo appearance in the 1994 animated film Pom Poko. And she got a brief mention in the iconic 1998 horror film Ring.

It wouldn't be until 2007 that Kuchisake-onna finally got her own fully-fledged film titled Carved: The Slit-mouthed Woman. The film has since become a franchise of sorts, spawning several sequels.

The legend has also appeared in books, manga, and video games, including 2007's Kuchisake-onna.

Japan's Version of the Phantom Clown?

In many ways, the hysteria caused by the Kuchisake-onna's legend is not incomparable to the western phantom clown epidemic from 2016. But while the slit-mouthed woman isn't terrifying children quite as much as she did decades ago, she remains an iconic character of Japanese legend.

References and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mike Grindle