You’re walking home at night on a deserted road when a woman in a surgical mask approaches. It’s not such a strange thing, as many people in Japan wear masks when they’re feeling under the weather or trying to prevent pollen-induced allergies. She stops.
“Am I pretty?” she asks. She has long, shiny black hair and is wearing a beige coat cinched at the waist.
“Yes,” you say.
And that is when she removes her mask to reveal her mouth slit wide from ear to ear. She smiles. Her teeth are long and crooked and sharp.
“What about now?”
If you answer “no” you’re doomed. If you answer “yes” you’re doomed as well; it just takes a little bit longer. Her method varies from bare hands, to knives, to scissors. No matter the method, the answer “yes” and the answer “no” are to be avoided at all costs.
The kuchisake onna myth has been around for a long time. Indeed some have traced it back to the Heian Era (794-1185). But for a story to last this long it must undergo some changes. It must adapt to the current culture.
My brother-in-law was a little boy in the late seventies. This seems to have been one of the times when the kuchisake onna scare was at its height. Children all over Japan were terrified of this torn-mouth woman and it didn’t take long before people began to report actual sightings.
My husband says he remembers for several months his little brother going out into the garden before school and filling his book bag with rocks. When asked why, he said the kuchisake onna targeted kids coming home from school and it was the only chance he had against her.
You have to remember that in much (if not all) of Japan school buses aren’t used to ferry kids from bus stops to school. Children walk. Even if the school they go to is 30, 40, or 50-minutes away. They all walk. Parents aren’t allowed to drop them off either. So it’s not uncommon at all to see a tiny 6-year old girl with a vinyl backpack strapped on walking to school in near predawn light. Which means that in the winter months these same kids are coming home in the dark. They walk in groups, but as friends reach their own houses they break off and eventually you have little ones walking alone the rest of the way home. This was how it was back in brother-in-law’s day and it’s how it’s done now.
In the seventies it was still popular legend that the kuchisake onna was a revengeful spirit. That she was once a beautiful woman who had cheated on her samurai husband. The samurai in a fit of rage then sliced her from ear to ear laughing and saying, “Who will think you’re beautiful now?”
My son is 15-years old, but when he was younger there was a time when his friends and classmates also kept a watchful eye out for the same kuchisake onna. But the story had changed somewhat.
My son’s version is of a woman and a plastic surgery gone wrong. Very 21st century.
I’ve read things like saying she’s “so-so” or “just regular” are the answers you must give in order to live. But that’s not what my brother-in-law or my son told me.
I asked my brother-in-law if the rocks worked. He said he never had much faith in the rocks, but learned later that if he carried something bright yellow on his person that would scare her away. So in the late 1970s I imagine a whole lot of children were decorated with yellow handkerchiefs and caps, etc.
However, I must admit I like my son’s more recent version of the story better. It seems the surgery gone wrong was for a reason. The doctor who was performing the operation was wearing a lot of pomade on his hair. Too much. He reeked of the hair cream and when he leaned near the woman to make an incision the girl flinched, jerking her head away. The knife caught her mouth and sliced it open.
So the answer to how you escape a 21st Century kuchisake onna is: when she asks you if she’s pretty or not your response should be: “Pomade! Pomade!” This temporarily stuns her and will buy you the extra few seconds you need to escape.