An elementary school student was on the way home from school when a strange woman came walking towards him on the other side. Despite the fact it was summer, the woman was wearing a long red coat, and her mouth was covered with a large surgical mask. Then, as she passed the student, she asked him something.
“Am I… pretty?”
Although she was wearing a mask, the woman appeared to be quite young and beautiful, so the student answered, “Yes, you are!”
The woman then removed her mask.
“How about now?!” she screamed.
The mask was hiding the woman’s mouth, slit from ear to ear. She removed a sickle from beneath her coat and attacked the elementary school student. The boy, terrified, tried to run, but the woman was too fast, catching him with incredible speed. Then she stuck the sickle in his mouth and ripped it from ear to ear.
This woman is called “Kuchisake-onna,” or the slit-mouth woman. Kuchi meaning mouth, sake meaning to tear or rip something, and onna meaning woman. It’s a pretty straightforward name. Kuchisake-onna is classified as a toorima, meaning a random attacker or slasher.
In the present day, there are several explanations as to how Kuchisake-onna came about. The general story is that she underwent plastic surgery, which failed badly and left her with her mouth torn wide open. In order to unleash her unbearable build up of rage, she attacks elementary school children on their way home from school, one after the other.
Why did she undergo surgery though? One story says that Kuchisake-onna was the youngest of three sisters. Both her older sisters underwent plastic surgery to great success, but only hers was a failure and left her with her mouth torn. The surgeon that performed the operation was wearing quite a bit of pomade (hair wax) in his hair, which is how she especially came to hate that (but more on that later).
Another story goes that there is not one, but three Kuchisake-onna. The oldest sister had a failed plastic surgery attempt, leaving her with her mouth torn. The middle sister had a terrible car accident, leaving her with her mouth torn. Then the youngest sister went crazy, cutting her own mouth to match her older sisters.
A third version says that Kuchisake-onna carelessly cut her own mouth open, leaving the responsibility for the accident entirely in her own hands.
There are also lesser known versions, where Kuchisake-onna accidentally cut herself whilst working in the garden, but in general something happened that caused her mouth to get cut wide open, and now she’s not happy about it.
She’s a young woman in her early twenties, around 155cm tall (although in some stories she’s said to be over two metres tall!), and although she has a mask on she appears to be quite beautiful. She has slanted eyes, and a cat-like voice.
She’s most commonly known for wearing a red coat. This red coat has a dual purpose: so it doesn’t stand out when she is splattered with the blood of her victims, and so she can easily hide the sickle she attacks people with underneath it. There have been stories of her wearing a white coat, but in the majority of cases it’s red. She prefers red clothes in general. She’s sometimes seen wearing a red beret and even red high heels. Anything to make the blood of her victims stand out less. Over time she’s developed some local variations, however:
- In Edogawa-ku in Tokyo it’s said that she has a red umbrella with which she uses to fly!
- In Tamagawa in Tokyo she’s said to have a slovenly, dirty appearance.
- In Hajiouji and Kokubunji cities in Tokyo she’s known for wearing a kimono with sunglasses
- In Okayama prefecture she’s said to carry around a comb made of Japanese boxwood
She carries with her her infamous sickle to cut children’s mouths with. In some versions of the story this can be either a razor, knife or even an axe, but she’s most well known for her sickle.
She’s also said to be able to run incredibly fast; she can cover 100 metres in just 3 seconds! In some stories she can run so fast she can even overtake a police bike.
METHOD OF ATTACK
The most common version of the story starts with Kuchisake-onna approaching a young child and asking them, “Am I pretty?” Whether they answer yes or no, it generally results in them being stabbed to death with her sickle. But like everything else when it comes to this urban legend that’s not her only method of approach.
In several versions she’s known to approach passersby and simply eat them, or spirit them away somewhere. Another version has her asking “Would you like to eat some yogurt?” When the passerby declines, Kuchisake-onna goes on to eat them instead. Yet another method involves her tapping on someone’s shoulder. When the person turns around, she slashes their throat. The only way around this is to turn in the opposing direction to which shoulder was tapped. If she taps your left shoulder, turn right. If she taps your right shoulder, turn left. Only then can you escape.
WHERE TO FIND HER
Kuchisake-onna is said to have a love of the number three, perhaps because of the three sisters versions of her origin. As a result, she’s said to often appear places with the kanji for “three” in the place name. Mitaka City and Sangenjaya, both places in Tokyo with the word ‘three’ in their names are especially popular haunting grounds for Kuchisake-onna. Some stories go so far as to say her base lies in a department store in Sangenjaya. But these places with the word ‘three’ in them aren’t the only places you’re likely to see her.
It’s not uncommon to find Kuchisake-onna living underneath the stage in school gyms, or even working as the school nurse who’s always hiding behind her sick mask. Outside of schools she’s known to frequent graveyards and shrines.
HOW TO DEAL WITH HER
Supposing you ever run into Kuchisake-onna in some dark alley, there are surprisingly numerous ways you can escape her grasp.
First of all, it’s said that she doesn’t like pomade, a type of greasy hair wax. If you yell “pomade, pomade, pomade!” three times in succession she will falter, and this will give you the chance you need to escape. The reason for this is because, as mentioned earlier, when she was undergoing surgery, the surgeon used quite a lot of pomade in his hair and the smell made her sick. Throwing or sprinkling actual pomade will also aid in escape, and even just writing the word on your hand and showing it to her is said to be effective.
Kuchisake-onna is also said to have a fondness for bekko-ame, a type of hard candy. She would become engrossed at the sight of it, giving children the chance to escape. Children often carried bekko-ame around when Kuchisake-onna mania was at its highest, so this was considered a useful way to escape her clutches. Other candies included kuroame (black candy) and chupa chups. Kuchisake-onna just really liked candy!
A third way, the way most commonly known today, is to simply answer her question of “Am I pretty?” with “So-so.” This will briefly confuse her and give the victim a chance to escape. But these aren’t the only ways to escape her grasp. According to author Yamaguchi Bintaro, who wrote a book on modern yokai in 2007, he poses the following as confirmed methods to escape capture:
- Yelling “ninniku, ninniku” over and over. Ninniku is garlic, although there’s no explanation given as to why she doesn’t like garlic.
- Yelling “hage, hage.” ‘Hage’ means baldness, but again no explanation is given as to why this works.
- Kuchisake-onna is also said to have a dislike of dogs, so writing the kanji for ‘dog’ on one’s hand, or saying “There’s a dog coming!” will give you the chance you need to escape.
- For some unknown reason, Kuchisake-onna is unable to go past the second floor of buildings, so climbing higher than this will keep you safe.
- She also won’t chase people who escape into record or cosmetic shops.
- Lastly, Kuchisake-onna won’t attack people with O-type blood. A good time to go and get your blood checked out and see if you have a natural immunity!
Rumours of Kuchisake-onna first begin to spread throughout Japan during the spring and summer of 1979, inspiring fear in elementary school students nationwide. The rumours became so widespread that police cars were sent out on patrols (Fukushima prefecture, Kanagawa prefecture) and groups formed to make sure that children returned home safely (Hokkaido). She even made it to the communication logs children took home with them from school, informing parents as to the fuss she was stirring up. Bekko-ame also became a problem as children brought it with them to school in order to protect themselves against her.
On June 21st, 1979, a 25-year-old woman living in Himeji City dressed up as Kuchisake-onna for a joke. She walked around holding a knife before eventually being arrested under the Swords and Firearms Control Law. Thankfully, no school kids were harmed during her brief reign of terror. In the same year the Mainichi Newspapers published a history of Showa series featuring trending words from the late 70s. They mentioned there was a popular service amongst the hostesses of Ginza which involved covering their mouth and asking their customers, “Am I pretty?” Of course, the correct answer was to either say “bekko ame” or “pomade,” those two things Kuchisake-onna dislikes, but there’s no record of any customers facing the sickle if they got the answer wrong. Another phrase that was created around the same time was “kuchisaki-onna”, a play on words used for women who liked to shoot their mouth of a lot. In this case the ‘saki’ means to go first, or ahead of someone.
By August of the same year, the beginning of the summer holidays, the rumours that had been taking over the country calmed down. This is possibly because word of mouth ceased with children no longer at school to discuss the woman terrorising their streets. It’s not too difficult to see how word of this terrifying “Kuchisake-onna” could spread amongst the children so easily, considering the fear she inspired in them. But with no internet or social media at the time, the issue died down once the children were no longer together each day to talk about it.
Enter the 90s. With news of plastic surgery and medical errors on the rise in the media, people once again because to speak of Kuchisake-onna, the woman who lost all reason thanks to her surgery mishap. Once again her name was on the lips of everyone across the country.
It’s said that the story of Kuchisake-onna actually originated in Gifu prefecture around the start of December in 1978, although some claim it was Aichi prefecture. The first time she was mentioned by the press was in the Gifu Hinichi Newspaper on January 26th, 1979.
At the time, comparatively wealthy families were able to send their children to night cram schools in order to secure their future, yet children from poorer families were supposedly told stories of Kuchisake-onna in order to make them give up their dreams of attending such expensive cram schools. “If you walk outside at night, Kuchisake-onna will attack you!” the parents told their children, trying to frighten them. As a result, however, the children became so frightened that the story spread to other parts of the country and cemented itself as an urban legend. She appeared on a local TV program in Osaka in the late 70s called “Young Town,” a talk show where various people discussed sightings of her, which helped her legend spread even further.
In July 2012, an empty store in the Yanagase shopping district in Gifu City opened as a limited time haunted house featuring Kuchisake-onna. Using the setting of the Showa period, visitors chased Kuchisake-onna throughout the mansion as she abducted a little boy. The event was so popular that it received a lot of attention from around the country and even sparked a revival in the town. People praised their smart usage of the urban legend that was born in their home prefecture.
Some people have traced Kuchisake-onna’s origins back even further, however. In his book “Himitsu Heya Aka,” author Seiryouin Ryuusui speculates that the actual basis for Kuchisake-onna comes from a real woman named “Otsuya,” who lived in Shiga prefecture during the Meiji era. Rumours abounded that she walked around late at night holding a straw doll in hand and carrying a carrot in her mouth, making it look torn to those who glimpsed her in the darkness. A long period of time passed, allowing the rumours to simmer and incubate, and they returned in Gifu prefecture in 1978 as “Kuchisake-onna.”
There were also rumours of a ‘Kuchisake-onna’ in the Edo period. There was a story of a kitsune in the Edo area that would turn into this slit-mouthed woman. The story is as follows:
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There was a young man of 20 called Kosuke, who worked at a shop called Daikokuya in Motogikucho, Edo. Being a fresh new employee, he was asked by his boss to run an errand in Ookubohyakunincho (present day Shinjuku). All he had to do was deliver a letter and wait for the reply, but the reply took a considerable amount of time, and by the time he was able to return the sun was already setting. But that wasn’t all; it had started to rain as well. Kosuke pulled out his umbrella and lit a lantern, then put the letter in his pocket and hurried along the street home.
With his umbrella held up against the rain, Kosuke felt a presence before him. He looked up to see a young woman, soaked and running along the street. Seeing her like that, he started running, yet realising that she might be the daughter of an influential man, he felt compelled to call out to her. This proved to be a fatal mistake. He called out to the woman and told her he was returning to Motogikucho, but if she would like to share his umbrella along the way, why didn’t she join him?
She turned around. The moment she did, Kosuke screamed and fell backwards. The woman’s mouth was cut from ear to ear. Fangs jutted out and her eyes sparkled at the sight of him.
Kosuke, worried about returning to the shop late, ended up being carried back in a litter. It was as though he had aged all at once; his teeth fell out and his face grew old. Without saying another word, he took his final breath.
It was known at the time that kitsune had made the areas neighbouring Ookubo their habitat. They especially liked to turn into women on rainy days and trick passing men. It’s said that the woman with the slit mouth that Kosuke called out to that day was also a kitsune.
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This wasn’t Kuchisake-onna’s only appearance in the Edo period, however. She was also depicted in the ‘Sayoshigure picture book’ by ukiyoe artist Hayami Shungyousai. A courtesan is pulled aside by a man whilst walking down the street in the red-light district. When the lady turns around, her mouth is cut from ear to ear. The man passes out and promises to never return to the red-light district again.
Kuchisake-onna is such a popular urban legend that she has inspired several variations. One such variation is ‘futakuchi-onna,’ the woman with two mouths. It’s said this woman has a large, second mouth on the top of her head. If you answer “Yes, you’re pretty” to her question she’ll pull apart the hair on her head to reveal her second mouth. If you answer “no, you’re ugly” she’ll proceed to eat you with that second mouth. There is, of course, a yokai named Futakuchi-onna that first made her appearance in the Hyakumonogatari picture book of the Edo period, but this particular version is entirely unrelated to her. She’s simply a variation of the modern Kuchisake-onna.
There’s another variation in Ehime and Fukushima prefectures called “Kuchiware-onna,” which translates to the broken mouthed woman. In Ehime prefecture she’s said to ask, “Am I beautiful?” and if you don’t answer she proceeds to stab you with a knife. That’s not all, however. For those who simply hear about this tale, it’s said that Kuchiware-onna will appear to them within three days, so be careful. It could be you next!
In Fukushima prefecture she’s said to ride around in a red Celica car and stops to ask “Are my eyes pretty?” Unlike Kuchisake-onna, Kuchiware-onna likes the famous local Fukushima candy instead. It’s said this version came about when a local newspaper misprinted Kuchisake-onna’s name as Kuchiware, and the name stuck.
The story even spread to Korea in 2004, gaining traction with a new generation of children to terrify. There she’s called the “Akai mask onna,” the red masked woman, with the red signifying blood.
Another version has Kuchisake-onna working with a companion, a man in a mask. This version is said to appear in the Hajiouji and Kokubunji areas of Tokyo.
Want even more urban legends?
Grab Toshiden: Exploring Japanese Urban Legends