Folktale Friday: Surviving the Slit-Mouthed Woman

Clad in a trench coat and wearing a surgical mask, the Slit-Mouthed Woman (Kuchisake-Onna), is a vengeful Japanese spirit who preys on school children and those wandering the streets alone.

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Fond of lurking in dark alleyways and concealing a knife or scissors in her coat, the Kuchisake-onna will approach an unsuspecting victim and ask one important, albeit needy, question: “Am I pretty?”

What is her threat level?

Extremely high.

Say “no” and she’ll kill you.

Say “yes” and she’ll remove her mask revealing her hideously mutilated mouth, before asking: “What about now?”

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Once again, you have two options:

  1. Scream and recoil in horror at her hideous visage (and then be killed)

    OR:

2. Remain calm and answer “yes.” This response will save your life, but not your face which will quickly be carved up to match her own.

Yeah. You really can’t win with this one.

How can I survive an encounter with the Slit-Mouthed Woman?

The same way you survive an encounter with any homicidally hostile woman: throw money or hard candy at her.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Once she’s suitably distracted by the handful of quarters or Jolly Ranchers you just lobbed her way, you can make your escape.

Alternatively, you could give her a vague, wishy-washy responses to her query. Something like: “meh”, “so-so” or a “you’re okay”.

This, again, will buy you some time to run away.

Photo by Yasin Emir Akbau015f on Pexels.com

What are the origins of the Slit-Mouthed Woman?

Some websites and blogs claim (but never provide any sources to back-up) that the story of the Kuchisake-Onna originated in the Edo Period (1603-1867). Legend says she was the vain, unfaithful wife of a samurai who, upon discovering her infidelity, sliced her mouth open from ear to ear. Afterwards, he is said to have looked upon his horrific handiwork and quipped: “Who will think you’re pretty now?”

A question she’s been trying to get an answer to ever since.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

However, Japanese folklorist Iikura Yoshiyuki believes the story of the
Kuchisake-Onna is a little more contemporary, pointing to a mass panic that occurred in Japan in the late 1970s. This hysteria was connected to the rise of after-school education centres or “cram schools”.

In these private schools, students of all ages, from different towns and regions, would study, socialise and then walk home alone, usually after dark.

Photo by Ashutosh Jaiswal on Pexels.com

According to the folklorist, the children’s imaginations, fuelled by traditional “yokai” ghost stories, things that happened to a “friend of a friend” and a shared unease about the strangers they encountered on their way home, created a fear of the Kuchisake-Onna that spread nationwide.

Teachers and parents were…conducting patrols and arranging for children to return home in groups. 

Iikura Yoshiyuki
Japanese Urban Legends
https://www.nippon.com

What’s the message here?

The legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman has been used as a commentary on everything from the Japanese beauty industry to infidelity and stranger danger. However, I think it’s the Slit-Mouthed Woman’s question that is of most interest. Mainly because it’s impossible to answer without meeting some kind of grisly fate.

It reminds me of the spiteful spirits found in Japanese horror movies like The Ring or One Missed Call where supernatural antagonists, themselves based on figures from Japanese folklore, are equally brutal, vindictive and cruel. It doesn’t matter how hard the protagonist works to uncover the ghost’s tragic backstory and set things right, the spirit doesn’t care and the malevolence continues.

Vengeful ghosts, it seems, can’t be reasoned with and they can’t be stopped, so maybe one of the messages in the story of the Slit-Mouthed Woman is: think twice before you do terrible things to people while they’re alive, because once they’re dead there’s no appeasing them.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

So what have we learnt?

In a world of bogeymen, the Slit-Mouthed Woman, is doing her bloodthirsty best to smash the supernatural patriarchy and she’s doing it all in a surgical mask and trench coat. Making her the easiest and cheapest Halloween costume since the bed-sheet ghost.

More urban legend than folklore foe, the Kuchisake-Onna is a potent reminder for children to be wary of strangers regardless of their gender, and to always, always carry hard candy with you.

Sound advice.
Photo by Customerbox on Unsplash

RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-topics/g00789/japanese-urban-legends-from-the-slit-mouthed-woman-to-kisaragi-station.html

https://www.vox.com/2019/3/3/18248783/momo-challenge-hoax-explained

https://tbsnews.net/splash/legend-kuchisake-onna-75496

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/510542

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