Translating to the ‘slit-mouthed woman’, the Kuchisake-onna is one of the malevolent spirits of Japanese folklore known as onryō. Collectively, onryō are spirits of the dead still angry and resentful of how they were treated in life, driving them to take vengeance through the killing or mutilation of victims as vengeful ghosts. Other versions of the myth suggest that the Kuchisake-onna is one of the Yokai, generally malevolent supernatural creatures.
Unlike other common yokai, such as the kappa, the Kuchisake-onna is broadly human in appearance, resembling a woman with the lower half of her face concealed behind a mask. Approaching lone victims, usually at night, she will inquire if they find her attractive. If they say no, she will kill them with a bladed weapon, often a long pair of scissors or shears. However, if they respond positively she will remove the mask, revealing that the corners of her mouth have been split across her cheeks, almost reaching her ears. She then uses the same blade to carve their face to resemble her own.
As with many folklore tales, the origin of the Kuchisake-onna varies significantly between versions. The most common is that in life she was the wife of a samurai. On finding that she had been unfaithful, her husband carved her mouth open as punishment. Alternatively, she was the favoured concubine of a powerful lord, before jealous rivals mutilated her face. More modern tellings suggest that she underwent a dental procedure that went wrong, driving her mad when she saw her new appearance. Finally, rather than her having originally been a human woman, some tales suggest that she was something else entirely, her unnaturally wide mouth filled with alien, needle-sharp teeth.
Usually, Kuchisake-onna repeats her question (generally translated as ‘am I beautiful?’) twice. The first time, she kills those who say no outright, whereas if they say yes, she will remove her mask and repeat her query. Those that change their mind on seeing her disfigurement, or who recoil or scream, are killed. If the victim reaffirms their belief that she is beautiful, she will cut open the corners of their mouth, but otherwise leave them alive. Another version states that those that say yes twice are initially spared, only for her to visit them that night to kill them in their sleep. The few tales that see a potential victim survive involve them stalling for enough time to escape by describing her as just average in appearance, or by distracting her with money or a popular kind of boiled sweet known as bekko ame.
Historians believe that tales of Kuchisake-onna originally date back to the Edo period, emerging between the 17th and 19th centuries. The legend saw a resurgence after a number of newspaper stories in early 1979, resulting in a brief period of public hysteria that reportedly saw young children escorted to and from school.