Kuchisake onna is said to be a vengeful spirit who covers her disfigured face and asks strangers: "Am I beautiful?" She then attacks them regardless of how they answer.
Japan has its fair share of monsters and ghost stories. But few are as frightening as the legend of kuchisake onna, the slit-mouthed woman.
According to this creepy urban legend, kuchisake onna appears to people walking alone at night. Upon first glance, she seems to be a young, attractive woman covering the lower part of her face with a mask or fan.
She approaches her victim and asks a simple question, “Watashi, kirei?” or “Am I beautiful?”
If the victim says yes, the kuchisake onna exposes her full face, revealing her grotesque, bleeding mouth slashed ear-to-ear. She will ask once again, “Am I beautiful?” If her victim then says no or screams, kuchisake onna will attack and slash her victim’s mouth so that it’s like hers. If her victim say yes, she may leave them alone — or follow them home and murder them.
This eerie urban legend is bound to send a shiver down your spine. So where exactly did it come from? And how can someone survive an encounter with the kuchisake onna?
Where Did The The Kuchisake Onna Legend Originate?
Like many urban legends, the origins of the kuchisake onna can be difficult to trace. It’s believed that the story first emerged during the Heian period (794 C.E. to 1185 C.E.). As the Atlantic reports, the kuchisake onna may have once been the wife of a samurai who mutilated her after she was unfaithful.
Other versions of the story state that a jealous woman attacked her because of her beauty, that she was disfigured during a medical procedure, or that her mouth is full of razor-sharp teeth.
In any case, the woman in question eventually became a vengeful ghost, or an onryō. Her name breaks down to kuchi meaning mouth, sake meaning to tear or to split, and onna meaning a woman. Thus, kuchisake onna.
“The spirits of the dead who were killed in particularly violent manners — abused wives, tortured captives, defeated enemies — often do not rest well,” an online database of Japanese folklore called Yokai explained. “The kuchisake onna is thought to be one such woman.”
As the kuchisake onna, this vengeful spirit soon sought to take her revenge. So what exactly happens when you cross her path? And, more importantly, how can you survive meeting her?
The Spirit’s Dangerous Question: ‘Watashi, Kirei?’
Legend states that kuchisake onna stalks her victims at night and will often approach lone travelers. Wearing a surgical face mask — in modern retellings — or holding a fan over her mouth, the spirit asks them a simple but dangerous question: “Watashi, kirei?” or “Am I beautiful?”
If her victim says no, then the vengeful spirit will immediately attack and kill them with a sharp weapon, sometimes described as a pair of scissors, sometimes as a butcher’s knife. If they say yes, she’ll lower her mask or fan, revealing her bloody, mutilated mouth. According to Yokai, she’ll then ask “Kore demo?” which roughly translates to “even now?”
If her victim screams or cries out “no!” then kuchisake onna will mutilate them so that they look like her. If they say yes, she may let them go. But during the night, she’ll return and murder them.
So how can you survive this vengeful spirit’s yes/no question? Fortunately, there are ways. The Business Standard reports that you can tell the spirit that she’s “average” looking, throw hard candy called bekkō-ame at her, or mention hair pomade which, for some reason, kuchisake onna can’t stand.
The Kuchisake Onna Legend Today
Though an ancient legend, stories of the kuchisake onna have endured for hundreds of years. Yokai reports that they spread during the Edo Period (1603 until 1867) though kuchisake onna encounters were often blamed on a different, shapeshifting spirit called kitsune. And in the 20th century, this creepy legend enjoyed a new resurgence.
As Nippon reports, stories of a mysterious slit-mouthed woman started to spread in 1978. By no coincidence, this was the same time when many Japanese children started attending cram schools, which students in Japan attend to prepare for their difficult high school exams.
“Before, it was rare for rumors to cross over to another school district,” Iikura Yoshiyuk, an associate professor at Kokugakuin University who researches oral literature told Nippon. “But cram schools brought children from different areas together, and they took the stories they heard about other schools to share them at their own.”
As communication techniques grew more advanced — like the Internet — the legend of the kuchisake onna spread even further. As a result, some parts of this eerie legend took on new, regional characteristics.
“When you pass on a story orally, you’re always going by memory, so even if there are small changes the main details stay the same,” Iikura explained. “Online, you can copy and paste or transform it completely if you want. It happens instantly, and physical distance is not an issue…When urban legends travel to cities in other countries, they can change to fit better into the local culture.”
In some places, the vengeful spirit is said to wear a red face mask. In others, evil spirits can only travel in a straight line, so the kuchisake onna is described as being unable to turn a corner or chase someone up the stairs. In others, she’s even accompanied by a boyfriend who also has a slit mouth and who also wears a mask.
Real or not, the legend of the kuchisake onna has certainly proven to be a popular one in Japan and beyond. So next time you’re approached by a beguiling stranger who wants to know if you think they’re attractive, think very, very carefully before you offer up an answer.
For more interesting folklore from around the world, read the legend of Baba Yaga, the cannibalistic witch of Slavic folklore. Or, check out the terrifying legend of the Aswang, the shapeshifting Filipino moster that devours human guts and fetuses.