Kuchisake-onna, or "Slit-Mouthed Woman", is a malevolent figure in Japanese urban legends and folklore. The kuchisake onna is the ghost of a woman who was mutilated and has come back to seek vengeance on the world. Her name comes from the deep, bloody gash which runs across her face, grinning from ear to ear. She appears at night to lone travelers on the road, covering her grizzly mouth with a cloth mask, a fan, or a handkerchief.
According to legend, Kuchisake-onna was a woman whose mouth was slit from ear to ear while she was alive. In some versions of the story, Kuchisake-onna was the unfaithful wife or concubine of a samurai. As punishment for her infidelity, her husband sliced the corners of her mouth from ear to ear. Other versions of the tale include that her mouth was mutilated during a medical or dental procedure, that she was mutilated by a woman who was jealous of her beauty, or that her mouth is filled with numerous sharp teeth.
After her death, the woman returned as a vengeful spirit. She covers her mouth with a cloth mask, or in some iterations, a hand fan or handkerchief. She also carries a sharp instrument with her, which has been described as a knife, machete, scythe, or large pair of scissors.
Kuchisake onna sneaks up on her victims in the dark and asks them if they think she is beautiful, "Watashi, kirei?" If the victim answers yes, she pulls off her mask and reveals a red, blood-dripping, grotesque mouth. Then she asks in a grisly voice if they still think she is beautiful, "Kore demo?" If her victim answers no or screams in terror, she slashes him from ear to ear in an imitation of her own mutilation. If he lies and answers yes a second time, she walks away - only to follow her target home and slaughter him brutally that night.
An individual can survive an encounter with Kuchisake-onna by using one of several methods. In some versions of the legend, Kuchisake-onna will leave the potential victim alone if they answer "yes" to both of her questions, though in other versions, she will visit the individual's residence later that night and murder the person while sleeping.Other survival tactics include replying to Kuchisake-onna's question by describing her appearance as "average", giving the individual enough time to run away; distracting her by giving or throwing money or hard candies - particularly the kind of candy known as bekko ame, in her direction or by saying the word "pomade" three times.
Author and folklorist Matthew Meyer has described the Kuchisake-onna legend as having roots dating back to Japan's Edo period, which spanned from the 17th to 19th centuries. In print, the legend of Kuchisake-onna dates back to at least 1979.
The spirits of the dead who were killed in particularly violent manners - abused wives, tortured captives, defeated enemies - often do not rest well. Kuchisake onna is thought to be one such woman. However, during the Edo period, a large number of kuchisake onna attacks were blamed on shape-changed kitsune playing pranks on young men. During the 20th century, the blame began to be placed on ghosts, serial killers, and simple mass hysteria. This resulted in an explosion of kuchisake onna sightings all over Japan.