The kuchisake-onna is the product of a country trying to return to its roots during a period of rapid modernization. She is a bridge between the mystical yokai of the past and the horrors that fit a new age; a new type of yokai that fit themselves into the concrete and lights and traffic of a large city.
The kuchisake-onna’s tale spread throughout Japan in less than a year, and like any other story, it has many different versions. At its base level, the story is always about a woman with a surgical mask that hides horrible cuts on her face. She approaches her victim in the dark and asks, “Am I pretty?” If the victim says no, they are killed. If the victim says yes, she rips off her mask to reveal her disfigurement and asks again, “Am I pretty?” The victim can at this point choose to say no, leading to death, or yes, which prompts the kuchisake-onna to attack and cut her victim’s mouth like her own.
The different versions of the story add bits of pre-existing motifs from other yokai or insert other cultural anxieties into her tale. She can seem very real because of her appearance. She’s human, and the fact that she wears a surgical mask only allows her to camouflage herself easily. People in many parts of the world but in East Asia in particular often wear these masks to filter pollution or as a precautionary measure against illness. Her setting is a lonely street or subway, and her story is just familiar enough to be believable, though her origin story changes depending on who tells it and in which prefecture. This example from Nomura Jun’ichi shows a combination of the most common origins of the kuchisake-onna:
There are three sisters. The oldest had cosmetic surgery and, mistakenly, her mouth was slit open. The second sister was in a traffic accident and her mouth was slit open. Because of that, the youngest sister went insane, slit open her own mouth and was put into a mental hospital. She escaped and has appeared in town. Her hair is long; she always wears a mask and holds a scythe in one hand. If you give her candy [bekko-ame], she won’t chase after you. Or if you say “pomade,” you can run away. (qtd. in Foster 2009, 186)
In a society dominated by men, the kuchisake-onna was both a cautionary tale against cosmetic surgery and a commentary on the pressures women endure to change themselves and be beautiful per society’s standards. Michael Dylan Foster also suggested that the story of the kuchisake-onna served several purposes. She reflects some of the conflict with the shifting role of women in Japanese society and the changing gender norms that came with it. On one hand, his discussion touches on how the kuchisake-onna is a symbol of the pressure women face to be beautiful. On the other hand, he says the kuchisake-onna was seen as a symbol of beauty as a weapon. He mentions one of the 1970s Japanese women’s magazines that he researched, and how an article about kuchisake-onna was placed right next to an advertisement for plastic surgery. The dangers of these operations were made to seem as if they were much less compared to an over-exaggeration of a cosmetic surgery horror story. (Foster 2007, 712-713)
Though the story of this yokai was first documented in the Gifu prefecture in 1978, connections were drawn through tale to other women yokai that existed earlier (Foster 2009, 184). This happened to quickly validate her existence in the yokai pantheon. During the time her story first arose, Japan was going through an identity crisis. The rapid industrialization and urbanization of Japan led to programs being created that focused solely on the country’s past. Tours of the countryside were created in order to bring people back to the roots of their traditions, and the popularity of yokai soared. It wasn’t the popularity they had before the Meiji era, however. This was a popularity brought about by the commercialization of the myths many people had grown up with, so while the majority of citizens knew about yokai, these tales didn’t hold the same power over people that they once did. The nostalgia for the mysteries of the yokai did not have a place in an urban environment, and it makes sense that a new horror would be born in a turbulent and nostalgic time. As Foster aptly summarized it, “Just as migrants to urban centers had transformed their lifestyles to accommodate the spaces of city and suburb, so too the mysteries of the past could refashion themselves to be compatible with anonymous streets and concrete apartment buildings.” (Foster 2009, 187)
I mentioned previously that the kuchisake-onna was tied with other yokai that experienced a comeback in popularity. The yamanba and the ubume are two mountain crone yokai that have ties to children, and since the kuchisake-onna preyed exclusively on children in many versions of the story, she was seen as the same. The yamanba is either described as an elderly old woman, or as a young beautiful woman fitting the description of the kuchisake-onna. She was said to nurse children lost for three days, but she was also known for eating children. Because of her appearance and the fixation on children, the kuchisake-onna is suggested to be a yamanba displaced from her mountain (Foster 2009). The yamanba inspired a fashion trend in the 90s that was motivated, similar to the kuchisake-onna, by a desire to break free and protest against the pressure of beauty standards.
The kuchisake-onna is now in horror movies around the world, but it began as nostalgia for the mysticism of the yokai in pre-war Japan. The rapid growth of the country into the modern age brought about radical changes to many aspects of society, and since yokai grew and evolved with the culture up until this point, it only made sense that modern yokai would be radically different from how they were before. However, like Japanese culture today, the yokai still have their roots in the past. The kuchisake-onna may have been inspired by the turmoil of urbanization, but her stories are still reminiscent of the yokai before her.
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai. Berkeley: U of California, 2009. Print.
Foster, Michael Dylan. “The Question of the Slit‐Mouthed Woman: Contemporary Legend, the Beauty Industry, and Women’s Weekly Magazines in Japan.” Signs, vol. 32, no. 3, 2007, pp. 699–726. www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/510542.
Foster, Michael Dylan, and Kijin Shinonome. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. Oakland, CA: U of California, 2015. Print.
Nomura, Jun’ichi. Nihon No Sekenbanashi. Tokyo: Tokyo Shoseki, 1995. Print.
First picture is from here: https://scarina.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/kids.jpg
Second is from here: https://scarina.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/chalkpicture.jpg