Urban Legend – Kuchisakke Onna – Japan’s Murderous Apparition
One of the most chilling myths in horror fiction, the story of Kuchisake-Onna is a Japanese urban legend that has been heard around the world thanks to mainstream film interpretations and pop culture references.
The Woman with the Slit Mouth
The story starts innocently enough. There’s a woman wearing a surgical mask who appears to Japanese residents in the Nagasaki Prefecture. That’s about as normal as the story gets though, because from here things get more than a little bit weird, and intensely terrifying.
It’s important to understand that people wearing surgical masks in Japan are not an uncommon sight. They’re useful for protecting against air pollution, and those afflicted by common viruses like cold and flu will often wear them to protect others from contamination. Kuchisake-Onna wears one for a different reason though.
The story goes that a woman who cannot be confirmed as alive or dead uses a surgical mask to hide her hideous disfigurement.
She appears to children (and sometimes adults) at night with the mask on. You can’t run from her, because she will eventually appear in front of you again no matter how fast, or how far you travel.
When the woman appears she will ask her victims, “Am I Pretty”. If the answer is no then she will immediately murder them using scissors, however if the answer is yes then she moves on to her next round of torment. Removing the mask to reveal her disfigured face cut ear to chin, she will ask her victims again, “Am I pretty?”
Now the stakes are raised. If the answer is no she will cut her victims in half, however if they answer yes then she will spare their lives, albeit leaving them with a fresh wound much like her own. It’s a lose/lose situation, and that’s what makes this urban legend one of the scariest in horror fiction.
This urban legend has been around since the 1970s, and throughout the evolution of the legend some ways to escape Kuchisake-Onna’s curse have surfaced.
It has been said that you can confuse the woman enough that you will have time to escape. Ambiguous answers to her “Am I pretty?” question seem to do the trick. Answers such as “You’re OK”, “You’re so-so”, or even “I’m not sure” have been said to bewilder the woman, giving time for victims to flee. Some also say that throwing fruit or candles at Kuchisake-Onna will cause her to stop and pick them up, again allowing time to escape her before she can ask her chilling question.
Kuchisake-Onna in Popular Media
The mark of any good piece of horror fiction is how prevalent it is in popular culture, and Kuchisake-Onna is one of the most famous in Asia. Interpretations of this urban legend have been featured in Live action horror films like Carved 2: The Scissors Massacre, and even in Japanese Manga comic books and Anime cartoons. All in all, this horror fiction story has appeared in 14 mainstream film, comic, or cartoon series releases.
Beware the Woman with the Slit Face
Kuchisake-Onna translates literally to The Woman with The Slit Face. The name in itself is enough to create fear around the story, but now that you know the legend behind it you might think twice about trading words with a surgical masked woman appearing in front of you in the dead of night. If you don’t have any fruit or candles on hand, you might just find yourself in trouble.
A Look at the Myth
Watching a documentary about urban legends the other night got my blood up. There’s something that happened to me in my teens that I have never been able to push from my mind, for reasons that you’ll soon discover. This is not fiction. This horror really happened to me, and I hope you’ll never have to experience anything like it.
The year was 1975…
My father was stationed in Okinawa on the US military base, but I was living in Tokyo with my aunt. My mother was Japanese, but she had died when I was born, I had no memory of her aside from pictures, and my dad had mostly raised me on the base where he was stationed as a commanding officer. I was 14 at the time, and had only seen America in pictures and movies. By all accounts, I was Japanese.
At least that’s what I thought, but the constant bullying in school said otherwise. They used to call me Gaijin (it literally means outside person) and mocked me for my American heritage. Some absolutely hated me, which was to be expected, many of the student’s families’ had relatives who died in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which brings me back to my point.
We were visiting Nagasaki on a school trip to see some of the preserved ruins from the war. Things weren’t going too bad until we came to the Nagasaki Peace Park. This was the memorial park dedicated to those who died in the atomic bombings in the 40s. The taunting started. At first it was just the usual jeers and insults, but then things started getting serious, and a little too personal for me to handle. What made things worse was that the teachers did little to help me. You know they talk about discipline in the schools in Japan, but I guess when it came to me, the half American, half orphaned Japanese kid I was fair game.
“Was your Gaijin father the one who dropped the bomb?” Natsuke, one of the particularly cruel bullies said to me in Japanese. Tears were welling up in my eyes by now. The rest of the class started taunting. Murderer, killer, American… they wouldn’t let up. The teacher was simply looking away. I had no friends here.
Running away from the class and not even knowing where I was going I just ran as fast as I could. I must have gone for a kilometer or so and was in a fairly run down looking residential area. There were few people around, just a stray cat that hissed at me as I turned in to an alley. I stopped here to catch my breath.
That’s when Natsuke caught up to me. “What’s wrong Gaijin, don’t you want to learn about what your dad and his friends did to us?”
I was silent. I was completely terrified of this guy, and I didn’t know how to react. That’s when a woman came in to the alley. It was strange actually because I was facing the exit and she seemed to appear without even entering. Natskuke turned to look at what was happening when she spoke.
“Am I pretty?”
“Excuse me?” Me and Natsuke spoke in unison, funnily enough it was the only time we shared some commonality together.
“Am I pretty?” she said again, this time her voice a rasp as she removed her mask. Surgical masks aren’t that uncommon in Japan, many people wear one when they have a cold or flu, or when people around them do, but what I saw next was definitely not common.
Her face was torn from chin to cheekbone in a diagonal line. The wound looked fresh, but it can’t have been because it wasn’t bleeding. She screamed it this time.
“AM I PRETTY?”
What happened next will be etched in my memory forever. Natsuke started laughing hysterically before saying between breaths “No! You’re hideous? Who told you you’re beautiful you old hag?”
She moved swiftly, pulling her hand up. She was holding a pair of household scissors, but they were sharp enough to do the job. She plunged them in to Natsuke more times than I could count. He was still falling to the ground, already dead as she kept thrusting. I had no love for this kid but I took no pleasure in watching. I fled for the second time that day, this time frantically brushing past the woman on my way back in to the alley.
She was fast. She was in front of me again, her sagging wound flapping. I turned, and there she was again. I fell to the floor in dismay. Looking up at her with arms outstretched. This was too unreal to comprehend.
“Am I pretty?” She said it this time only as a whisper.
“Yes. You’re beautiful.” I replied. Maybe this was what she needed to hear.
“And so are you.” She moved again like lightning, slashing my face. Just as soon as I had begun screaming in pain she was gone.
Everything else happened in a blur. The teacher arrived, the police arrived, and the rest of our class behind them. I was there alone with Natsuke’s lifeless body nearby, and was rushed off in an ambulance. They never found the woman. I knew they wouldn’t. It was almost as if she was no longer human.
I did a lot of research on her after I came out of the hospital. There were no libraries in those days, but people talked. I was able to sneak off on the train to Nagasaki on the weekends, telling my Aunt that I was studying.
Locals told me that there was a woman in Nagasaki Prefecture in the early 70s whose husband was having an affair. One night she had disfigured herself in the bathroom. As her husband arrived home from a date with his younger, prettier mistress he found her sitting in her blood with her disfigured face. She killed him on the spot with the same scissors she had used to cut her face. She died from her wounds before a family member found either of the bodies.
The locals called her Kuchisake-Onna, and she has become something of an urban legend. The slit mouthed woman is no mere piece of horror fiction though. She’s the reason that I’m so pretty.