Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman of Japanese Folklore

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You've been out with friends at a restaurant. It's dark out, and this afternoon's sudden rainstorm left the pavement with an earthy smell. Small patches of weeds poke through the still wet cracks in the sidewalk. Overhead, an orange streetlight buzzes and flickers. You spot a woman in a white dress up ahead, sitting on a bus stop bench. She has her head down, her long dark hair falling over her face.

As you approach, the woman lifts her head, revealing that she wears a surgical mask, and asks you...

"Am I Beautiful?"

Stop. Don't answer that.

Some of what I do is delve into folklore to train you in the fine art of not dying a horrible death at the hands of malicious spirits. In fact, if anyone ever asks you that, you may want to throw your emergency stash of hard candies from your pocket and run like hell. More on this survival strategy later.

Kuchisake-onna from Ehon Sayoshigure by Hayami Shungyōsai, 1801. Kuchisake-onna about to murder a guy.
Kuchisake-onna from Ehon Sayoshigure by Hayami Shungyōsai, 1801. Obviously, that guy is about to die.

What Is the Kuchisake-Onna?

It is a vengeful spirit (English: onryō, Japanese: 怨霊) of Japanese folklore, capable of causing harm or even killing the living. Some of these can even cause natural disasters. This particular one is a woman whose mouth has been cut wide open at the corners, from ear to ear. She keeps the injury covered, then asks her potential victims if they think she is beautiful. Depending on how the conversation goes, you'll either end up dead, disfigured, or both.

Kuchisake-onna Pronunciation & Meaning

It's hard to remember a word if you can't pronounce it. So, let's start there. An excellent website for learning the native pronunciation of words is Forvo.com. For kuchisake-onna (Japanese: 口裂け女), you can listen to a native pronunciation here. Usually, I'd make my own recording of this and put it up on YouTube, particularly because I speak Japanese, but I'm in the middle of moving houses, and my recording equipment is already packed up. You can trust the forvo.com user cachegoismm on that pronunciation.

As for the spelling, so much meaning is packed into Kanji. Here's a quick breakdown of the word for this malicious spirit. I'm going to simplify this to get straight to the point and skip some nuances of the language.

口 = "kuchi" meaning mouth

裂け = "sake" meaning split

女 = "onna" meaning woman

Easy, right?

How To Survive an Encounter With the Slit-Mouthed Woman

The first rule for surviving an encounter with anything malicious from any folklore is to never encounter it in the first place. Considering that the kuchisake-onna is supernatural, you're not even safe if you hole up and never leave your house. She could appear anywhere, like right behind you, right now.

Surviving an encounter is simple enough, though. Benjamin Mako Hill put together this handy diagram that shows how to do it.

Flowchart of conversation with kuchisake-onna where you die at every ending.
Created by Benjamin Mako Hill and distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.
I've made no changes to his original work aside from changing it to JPEG format.

Possible outcomes: kills you; cuts you in half; slits your mouth, so it appears like hers.

Well, that's not...ideal.

Some other versions of the legend, not represented on the diagram above, may leave your body alive and fully intact. You can try your luck with answering "yes" to both questions, and some say she'll leave you alone. It seems risky to me, though, mainly because still other versions say that she'll leave you alone then but visit you later and murder you in your sleep.

Japanese style illustration of kuchisake-onna
"Am I beautiful?" / 私、きれい?

When she first asks you, "Am I beautiful?" you can say, "meh, kinda average," which will confuse her and give you a chance to run like hell. She does have supernatural speed, though, so you better practice your world record sprinting before you encounter her.

Another method: the slit-mouthed woman does have a compulsion similar to certain vampiric lore. If you throw money (likely coins) or hard candy, she will stop to pick them up, giving you a head start on that whole run-like-hell thing.

Dale Gribble from King of the Hill throwing a handful of sand from his pocket into a man's face.
Dale's time has come! Trust in your handy pocket candy!

The Origin of the Kuchisake-Onna

There seem to be two primary roots for this vengeful spirit. The older of the two sources points us to the Edo period (江戸時代) in Japan, running from 1603 to 1868. Various stories from the Edo period describe a man who encounters a beautiful woman whose face he cannot see. He tries to talk to her, then finds out that her mouth has been slit open when she turns around. Sometimes she kills him, sometimes she disappears.

If you're like me and find history fascinating, take a 10-minute intro tour of the Edo period in Japan from Simple History on YouTube: Life in Edo Japan (1603-1868)

If you watch that video above, please take another 10-minutes to understand the term "gunboat diplomacy" and how the United States used dirty intimidation and threats to force Japan to trade with them. It wasn't as simple as Simple History (and most other sources) says. In fact, if you decide to only watch one of these two videos, watch this: End of the Samurai - Black Ships - Extra History - #1

History is often much more complicated and nuanced than what you initially learn, especially when examining the same events through different cultural lenses.

A more modern telling is a woman you will encounter wearing a surgical mask. She will ask you if you think she is beautiful, then once you answer, the woman will tear her mask off, revealing her slit mouth, and ask you again if you think she is beautiful. Of course, you die or end up with a hideous injury.

Everyone in Japan knows about kuchisake-onna. Everyone. The story swept across Japan in the 70s. It became such a phenomenon that parent-teacher associations got involved to ensure young kids had an adult escorting them home from school so that the kuchisake-onna wouldn't get them.

Humans at the Top of the Food Chain?

A lot of the whole "staying alive" thing is empowering yourself with knowledge. You see, nature and supernature (natural vs. supernatural—that's how that works, right?) are constantly out to get you. It's just a simple fact of the universe. In the grand scheme of things, humans aren't at the top of the food chain, no matter how many of us think we're apex predators.

When was the last time you used your bare teeth to tear the flesh from your fresh kill? Or, when was the last time you tricked a pesky human into answering an insidious line of questioning, only to attack and kill it with a pair of scissors?

Silhouette of long haired woman with very long scissors and blood splattered on the wall.
I bet kuchisake-onna wins every game of rock paper scissors.

Aside from the fact that nearly everyone reading this (hello 👋 to the slit-mouthed woman behind you! こんにちは、口裂け女) has never done those things, all this "top of the food chain" business is grossly misunderstood.

A group of French researchers used food supply data from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) covering the diets of people across 176 countries to calculate the human trophic level (HTL). The paper published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences found that humans scored an average HTL of 2.21. That ranks us somewhere just below the middle of the food chain, roughly sitting near pigs and anchovies.

Sorry meat-eaters, humans aren't at the top of the food chain

Welcome to the supernatural world, where we humans are as defenseless as anchovies. If it's any consolation, I'm sure we taste good.

Bonus Survival Tactic!

If you encounter kuchisake-onna, try yelling "pomade!" three times and then run. It's a thing. If you use this tactic and survive, be sure and let me know so we can get the word out there. Want to learn more about Japanese folklore? Check out Matthew Meyer's work and an interview with him in Episode 121: Yokai Horrors of Japan from Astonishing Legends.