“Did you hear about that boy on the other side of town? No? Apparently, he was walking home from school quite late, it was getting dark, when he saw this woman standing on the corner. She was wearing a mask, you know, like she had a cold. As he walked past she was staring at him.. he felt a bit uncomfortable. Well, she was saying something, in a really small voice, so he leaned in to hear her. She pushed her face up close to his and said “Am I beautiful?”. Actually, what he could see of her, she was. Anyway, it would be rude to say otherwise, wouldn’t it? So he said, “Yes, you are” and she pulls off her mask and says “Even like this?”. Her mouth was slit from ear to ear. Now he’s in hospital, she did the same to him. Don’t walk home on your own, will you?”

I came across the story of the ‘kuchi-sake onna‘ (slit-mouthed woman) when I was looking around for halloween topics for class beyond the usual jack ‘o’ lantern word search. The legend is a fairly modern one, dated to 1978 in Gifu prefecture, which reached its height in 1979. In that year, ‘kuchisake onna’ was named in the list of annual buzzwords, and it has passed into urban folklore. In 2007, it was even made into a pretty crappy looking film (although you REALLY shouldn’t watch this trailer if you scare easily – Japanese horror films don’t mess about!)

On the surface, this is a scary and slightly titillating story to provide a cooling shiver on a hot summer’s night (as is the Japanese custom). But digging a little deeper there are several readings of the basic story. The first is of course sexual – I’ll leave you to figure out what the mouth represents and why young boys should find it frightening – but sex is a general subtext to just about anything, so let’s leave that to one side. Michael Dylan Foster posits three further readings with more direct connections to time and place. The first is the rise of the kyouiku mama, the educationally driven mother pushing her children through cram school, which Foster cites in the oft-reported age of the cut-mouthed woman (in her thirties) and the fact that her usual victims are children coming home from school. Next is the symbolism of the mask itself, particularly in a Japan suffering the environmental and societal effects of rapid-post war growth. The gauze mask, (a daily sight on Japanese public transport since the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918) serves a dual purpose, protecting the wearer from pollution and disease in others, and covering up sickness from the rest of society. The mask also turned up as a sign of resistance during political action in the 1960′s and 70′s. Is the kuchi-sake onna a revolutionary? Foster’s attention focuses most deeply on our protagonist in relation to beauty and feminism, and believes that she continues to act as a subversive influence to this day.

It strikes me that the urban legend, as modern folklore, is ripe for exploitation in the classroom for critical thinking.

  1. I sometimes feel that students are so bound up in deciphering the language that they take the content for granted. By providing familiar stories, the student has a better chance to manipulate both the language and content.
  2. For many students, teachers and textbooks are unquestionable. Tell a tall story with a straight face and see how many call you out on it. Encourage this attitude vigorously.
  3. There are many, many readings of most legends. Seeking the origins of the story and extrapolating to the wider context which it sprang from is a great research project.
  4. Legends are often either local, or adapted to fit the locality. Use the chance to have the students tell the the teacher, or each other in a multi-cultural class, and take part in an authentic communication experience.
  5. Charting the progress and changes to a legend over time and space gives a thermometer reading of social concerns in context.
  6. Utilise Hammersley and Atkinson’s ethnographic questions about texts – simple to ask but often a bugger to answer. These last are vital questions for anyone (student or teacher) spreading their wings above the vast hinterlands of the internet. Too many “I don’t knows” and you’d better move on to something else.

How are texts written? How are they read? Who writes them? Who reads them? For what purposes? On what occasions? With what outcome? What is recorded? What is omitted? What is taken for granted? What does the writer seem to take for granted about the reader? What do readers need to know in order to make sense of them?

In a neat coda, reports surfaced in 2007 of a coroners report of a woman who had been hit by a car whilst chasing after a small children. Her mouth was slit from ear to ear, perhaps caused by the accident but perhaps….

Now, read through this post again and tell us what may have prompted this latest twist in the tale of the kuchi-sake onna…… happy halloween!

Further Reading

Foster, M.D. (2007) “The Question of the Slit-Mouthed Woman: Contemporary Legend, the Beauty Industry, and Women’s Weekly Magazines in Japan.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 32, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 699-726.

Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (1983) Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London: Tavistock.

Snopes.com, the best site on the internet for debunking urban myths and folk ‘wisdom’.

Bad Science, Ben Goldacre’s blog taking down tabloid ‘twitter gives you cancer’ scaremongering.