Kuchisake-onna (口裂け女, “Slit-Mouthed Woman”) is a malevolent figure in Japanese urban legends and folklore. Described as the malicious spirit, or onryō, of a woman, she partially covers her face with a mask or object, and carries some sort of sharp instrument. She has been described as a contemporary yōkai.
According to popular legend, she asks potential victims if they think she is attractive. If an individual responds with “no”, she will kill them with her weapon. If they say “yes”, she will reveal that the corners of her mouth are slit from ear to ear, and she will then repeat her question. If the individual responds with “no”, she will kill them with her weapon, and if they say “yes”, she will cut the corners of their mouth in such a way that resembles her own disfigurement. Methods that can be used to survive an encounter with Kuchisake-onna include answering her question by describing her appearance as “average”, or by distracting her with money or hard candies.
The legend and its variations
According to legend, Kuchisake-onna was a human woman who was mutilated during her life, with her mouth being slit from ear to ear. In some versions of the story, Kuchisake-onna was the adulterous wife or concubine of a samurai during her life. As punishment for her infidelity, her husband sliced the corners of her mouth from ear to ear. Other versions of the tale include that her mouth was mutilated during a medical or dental procedure, that she was mutilated by a woman who was jealous of her beauty, or that her mouth is filled with numerous sharp teeth.
After her death, the woman returned as a vengeful spirit, or onryō. As an onryō, she covers her mouth with a cloth mask (often specified as a surgical mask), or in some iterations, a hand fan or handkerchief. She also carries a sharp instrument with her, which has been described as a knife, a machete, a scythe, or a large pair of scissors. She is said to ask potential victims if they think she is attractive, often phrased as “Watashi, kirei?” (which translates to “Am I pretty?” or “Am I beautiful?”). If they answer “no”, she will kill them with her weapon, and if they answer “yes”, she will reveal her mutilated mouth. She then repeats her question (or asks “Kore demo?”, which translates to “Even with this?” or “Even now?”) and if the individual responds with “no” or screams in fright, she will kill them with her weapon. If they respond with “yes”, she will slice the corners of their mouth from ear to ear, resembling her own disfigurement.
An individual can survive an encounter with Kuchisake-onna by using one of several methods. In some versions of the legend, Kuchisake-onna will leave the potential victim alone if they answer “yes” to both of her questions, though in other versions, she will visit the individual’s residence later that night and murder them in their sleep. Other survival tactics include replying to Kuchisake-onna’s question by describing her appearance as “average”, giving the individual enough time to run away; distracting her by giving or throwing money or hard candies (particularly the kind of candy known as bekko ame) in her direction; or by saying the word “pomade” three times.
Author and folklorist Matthew Meyer has described the Kuchisake-onna legend as having roots dating back to Japan’s Edo period, which spanned from the 17th to 19th centuries.
In print, the legend of Kuchisake-onna in dates back to at least as early as 1979. The legend was reported in such publications as the Gifu Prefecture newspaper Gifu Nichi Nichi Shinbun on 26 January 1979, the weekly publication Shukan Asahi on 23 March 1979, and the weekly news magazine Shukan Shincho on 5 April 1979. Rumors about Kuchisake-onna spread throughout Japan, creating hysteria to the point that young children would sometimes be accompanied by members of parent–teacher association groups while walking home from school.
Historian and manga author Shigeru Mizuki considered Kuchisake-onna to be an example of a yōkai, a term which can refer to a variety of supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore. According to Zack Davisson, a translator of many of Mizuki’s works, “When Mizuki put her in one of his newest yokai encyclopedias, that’s when she was officially considered a yokai.”