by Lucy Randazzo
Traditionally, Japan has an extremely polite language and culture. Specific honorific and humble verb conjugations require knowing one’s place in the social structure, while an intricate system of bows changes the interpretation of interpersonal interactions by the adjustment of a few degrees. Grasping such a complex sociolinguistic structure takes a lifetime to master, and folklore teaches Japanese youth proper speech and behavior from an early age. In particular, the tale of the kuchisake-onna, or “slit-mouthed woman,” encourages children to properly beat around the bush linguistically under the violent threat of getting sliced from ear to ear.
This humanoid monster wears a mask over her mouth, confronting strangers to ask, “Am I beautiful?” If the answer is no, she immediately lashes out and slices up the person impertinent enough to be so rude, killing her victim with a blade or pair of scissors. An initial answer of “yes” is not the way to go either; even when given what someone from a Western culture would view as a compliment, she tears off the mask to reveal razor-sharp teeth in a mouth that has been slit open in a Glasgow smile. “What about now?” At this point, no matter what is said or done, the respondent is doomed to a grisly fate because the strict and immediate answer of “yes” is too enthusiastic and full of pressure, and the damage of that quick affirmation cannot be taken back. Except in the most intimate and close relationships, answering a question outright or too quickly shows a lack of concern or thought no matter what the answer may be.
A number of ways to avoid or escape the kuchisake-onna exist, varying regionally and individually. Wearing the color yellow prevents her from stalking you in the first place. Throwing hard candies sidetracks her like shiny objects distract crows. Yelling “pomade” at her three times makes her flee—something about her ex-boyfriend or the doctor who killed her wearing too much pomade in his hair (though speculations about her origins also include her being the vengeful spirit-lover of an unfaithful samurai; and getting hit by a car and mangled while chasing some children). The most prevalent solution when a confrontation with the slit-mouthed woman begins is to answer “maybe” or tell her that she looks “so-so,” which confuses the spirit long enough to escape. According to some versions, she is even polite enough to apologize for bothering her would-be victim if they respond that they have a prior engagement, very subtly insinuating that they cannot speak with her right then. Overhasty decisiveness is the courteous kuchisake-onna’s real pet peeve, but a mastery of how to answer questions or accept invitations keeps her wrath in check.
Lucy Randazzo is a senior studying English and creative writing with a minor in Japanese at the University of Arizona, her fiction thesis focusing on the interconnectivity of beauty and violence. Her short fiction prose has been published by Scribendi, the University of New Mexico’s honors undergraduate literary magazine. She is currently the managing editor of Persona, the University of Arizona undergraduate literary magazine, as well as an editorial assistant at Fairy Tale Review and an editing intern at the University of Arizona Press.