Know Your Ghosts – Kuchisake-Onna

Japan has a wealth of creepy ghost stories, but this one is particularly chilling.  Today’s topic is Kuchisake-Onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman.  This ghost legend crosses over into the realm of urban legend and may have some basis in fact.

The original story of Kuchisake-Onna comes from the Heian period of Japan’s history, roughly 1200-800 years ago.  A beautiful woman, either wife or concubine to a samurai, was extraordinarily vain.  She cheated on the samurai.  When he discovered her treachery, he slit open her mouth from ear to ear, giving her a Glasgow smile, and asked her, “Who will think you are beautiful now?”

While the original tale is clearly a cautionary story to remain faithful, the story takes a creepy turn when the ghost of the Kuchisake-Onna began appearing in Japan in the 1970s.  The story goes that a woman would appear to people travelling alone at night.  The woman wore a surgical mask, not terribly uncommon in Japan, and would ask if the traveler thought she was pretty (“Watashi kirei?“).  If they said no, she would kill them immediately or at least slash their faces the same as hers, usually with a long pair of scissors.

If the hapless victim said yes, she would remove the mask and ask, “how about now?” (“Kore demo?“) revealing her bloody, gaping wounds.  If the person said no at this second point, she would again kill them, slashing open their mouth.  If, however, the person said yes again, they still would not be safe.  She would follow them home and kill them on the threshold of their house.  The only way to survive the encounter with this ghoulish creature is to answer yes the first time and “so-so” or “average” the second time, which caused the Kuchisake-Onna to pause and ponder the response, giving the victim a chance to escape.  Without this distraction, the victim cannot escape the ghost as she simply reappears before them if they try to run.

As mentioned, the Kuchisake-Onna began making steady appearances in the 1970s, and in 1979 she was supposedly chasing children.  Surprisingly enough, there is some basis for this. In 2007, a coroner found records that in the late 1970s there was a woman who chased children.  She was struck by a car and killed while in the midst of such a chase, and she did have a torn mouth similar to the story.  This woman was likely the cause of the panic in the last ’70s.

The legend, however, has not died.  It resurfaced in the early 2000s, and is still prevalent today, though the means of escape is now telling the ghost you have a previous appointment to attend to, at which point she’ll excuse her poor manners and depart.  The legend has even spread to South Korea, where she appears with a blood red face mask.

The story has been used as a basis for a number of manga and novels, as well as a series of J-horror films.  The Kuchisake-Onna is often mixed with the yūrei, depicted with similar long black hair which conceals her horrible smile.

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