By Elise Burgess
Halloween is just around the corner, and although it’s not as popular of a holiday in Japan as in the West, there’s no shortage of terrifying ghosts, ghouls and general nightmare fuel. Low on Halloween costume ideas? Don’t want to end up being the 20th Harley Quinn on the block? Japan has many chilling legends to draw ideas from, and one of the most well-known is the Kuchisake-onna, or “Slit-mouthed woman”.
According to the original legend, a woman was caught cheating on her husband, who in a fit of rage sliced her mouth from ear to ear, exclaiming “Who will think you are beautiful now?” The woman then returned as a vengeful spirit and now seems rather interested in finding the answer to that final question. Most modern descriptions of this ghost show her with long black hair, a long trench coat, and high heels. She wears a surgical mask and carries a large pair of scissors. What do you do if you encounter her? A likely conversation will go like this:
The first thing you’ll hear is her signature question, “Watashi kirei?” which means “Am I beautiful?” Be very careful how you answer. If you answer “no”, she’ll cut right to the chase (no pun intended) and kill you with her scissors. Is it better if you say “yes”? Not quite… If you say “yes” she then takes off her surgical mask, exposing her mutilated mouth. She’ll ask you again in a grisly voice, “How about now?”
This is where the original legend and modern urban legend differ. Originally, if you make the mistake of screaming or saying “no”, she will cut your mouth to look like hers. If you lie and say “yes”, she’ll go away…only to show up later and murder you in your home. The modern urban legend isn’t any better with its options. If you say “no” or scream, she’ll cut you in half. If you say “yes” then she’ll slit your mouth to appear like hers. A no-win scenario, definitely. What can you do to defend yourself from this psychotic spectre? It’s impossible to run from her, they say, because she’ll merely reappear in front of you, asking her haunting question again. “Watashi kirei?”
There’s some good news, though. According to the legends, a good way to weasel out of this is to give her vague and confusing answers. Even better, try turning the question back on her. “Do you think you’re beautiful? Do you think I’m beautiful? What is beauty, really?” In the midst of her confusion, (or while she ponders whether to kill you out of sheer annoyance), you have your chance for the big getaway. Other sources say you can also throw candies or fruit at her and run while she picks them up. Thankfully, with Halloween approaching, no one should be left unprepared without candy to throw.
Just how popular is the Kuchisake-onna? In Gifu City in August, I was invited to an obakeyashiki, (the Japanese equivalent of a House of Horrors). The star of the show was none other than the Kuchisake-onna. A good friend of mine had auditioned for the part and ended up being one of at least three slit-mouthed darlings that graced the halls of the obakeyashiki. It was a tremendous honor for her. Not only was she the only foreigner deemed worthy of the surgical mask and scissors, but the Kuchisake-onna is the most famous terror in Gifu. While I was there, I heard from several locals who grew up hearing the legends and some even claimed to have seen someone who suspiciously resembled the crazed ghost. One local told me of an old mental asylum next to her house that she refused to walk past on her way to school due to rumored sightings of a woman escapee who had slit her mouth ear to ear. This added to the horror of the obakeyashiki. It was an amazing experience and absolutely spine-tingling. Recognizing one of the Kuchisake-onna as my friend in no way lessened the insane panic that ensued after being chased down dark hallways, hearing that damnable question over and over.
art by Dana Warren