Written by Shona McCarthy
Imagine you’re walking through the back streets of Tokyo at twilight. You think you’re completely alone. But then a beautiful woman wearing a surgical mask, and clutching a pair of scissors, asks you whether or not she is beautiful.
As urban legend has it, this woman is a kuchisake-onna. If you answer, ‘Yes,’ she will remove her mask, revealing a wide, bleeding pair of slits running from her mouth to her ears: a Glasgow smile. She will then ask you if you still think she is beautiful. At this point you must answer ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m sorry, I have to be somewhere else right now,’ and then run for your life. Any other answer would result in a violent death. The worst response to give would be a yes.
‘Good,’ she would answer. ‘I’ll make you just like me.’ Then she would take her scissors and slit your cheeks.
This story is often repeated among Japanese youth but despite the modern setting it is generally given, its origins stretch as far back as 800 to 1200 years ago to the story of a jealous and brutal samurai who slit the mouth of his beautiful wife whom he suspected of adultery.
What some Australians do not know is that the Japanese have their own unique type of folk horror with no Western equivalent. They aren’t always meant to be scary; they are sometimes ironic or moral, or thought provoking and evocative. These oral traditions are called kaidan and were typically told in a game where one hundred lit candles would be placed in the centre of a room. A group of people would sit in a circle around this arrangement and with each story told, a candle would be blown out. Mouths, in growing darkness, would share these oral traditions and it was believed that once the final candle was blown out, an apparition of some kind would appear in the shadows.
As it happens, a good number of these tales relate to the mouth as a source of strangeness or fear. Through these tales we can learn something about how the Japanese traditionally viewed the mouth with greater profundity than can be conveyed through conversation.
One tale is that of oseichu, a mythical illness, which would begin with terrible stomach pain and fever. Days later, a large, fully functioning mouth would grow on your stomach. This giant mouth would demand food incessantly, but would never be satisfied as you languished due to malnutrition.
It is said that the owner of a freak show in Japan attempted to recruit a woman with the condition as an exhibit in 1738. When he arrived, a voice was indeed coming from the woman’s abdomen beneath her clothes. But his request was denied; her husband was ashamed to have his wife’s condition paraded across Japan.
The only cure that has ever been identified for this condition is a mysterious mixture of six ancient medicines thrown directly into the large mouth. This causes a large worm to be expelled through the anus. Soon after, a full recovery would be made.
This story seems to link the mouth with three terrors: the terror of parasites entering the body through the mouth, the terror of literally being eaten out of house and home, and the terror of having a lack of control.
Then there is the story of the kanbari nyudo, a strange spirit which is covered in thick hairs with a cuckoo coming out of its mouth. It roams about in bathrooms at New Year’s dressed as a Buddhist priest, and attempts to touch and lick people while they use the toilet. An encounter with this creature means you will have bad luck for the rest of the year.
Avoiding the kanbari nyudo, however, is fairly easy. Upon entering a bathroom on New Year’s, it is said that if you chant, ‘Kanbari Nyudo! Hototogisu!’ the creature won’t come and your bad luck will be evaded.
The story is never told with sexual undertones; only the idea of a vulgar tongue invading personal space when such space is most needed. But the violation is taken one step further: the person is also robbed of hope for the coming year. The solution also involves a mouth; feudal Japanese were strong believers in the power of incantations, and so the mere act of uttering some words could keep an evil spirit away.
A more abstract mouth-related tale is that of the konnyaku no yurei. A man was attempting to cross a bridge not far from Nara when he was met with a female ghost. She had a piece of konnyaku jelly hanging from her mouth. The frightened man prayed on his knees until the ghost disappeared and then ran into town as fast as he could manage.
Some time later, he learned that a man and wife had argued over a piece of konnyaku jelly nearby. In a rage, the man had killed his wife. No one was able to deduce what the ghost wanted. To this day, that bridge is called the Konnyaku Bridge and can be visited in Tenri City, a twenty-five minute drive from Nara.
This story identifies the mouth as not only a source of desire, but also conflict and dissension, sometimes leading to death. To this day, argument and disagreement is strongly frowned upon in Japanese culture.
Another story connecting the mouth with death is that of the kuro bozu. With an appearance like that of a Buddhist monk made of shadow, it would hover over a sleeping person, and suck their breath away from their mouth. When the person awoke their face would be shrivelled and stinking. The only solution was to remove the victim from their home so they could sleep well somewhere else, giving them a chance to recover. Then they would return with no further issues. The kuro bozu would have left.
In Japanese lore, the mouth is also considered a door to the deeper spiritual self. So when the kuro bozu stole breath, they were stealing life itself.
One story that relates to biting is the story of Tesso, the Iron Rat. Long ago, the Emperor Shirakawa promised Tesso, the Abbot of Miidera, an ordainment platform in his temple. In exchange, Tesso would use his spiritual powers to grant the emperor a son.
Unfortunately, a rival temple full of fierce, powerful warriors in Kyoto opposed the move, and so the emperor did not carry out his promise, even after his child was born. In an attempt to change the emperor’s mind, Tesso went on a hunger strike for one hundred days, then died.
But it so happened that Tesso had used his powers to ensure he would be reborn after his death as a horrible rat monster. He and an army of rats invaded the rival temple and ravaged it relentlessly until finally a shrine was built in his honour, transforming him into a powerful, protective spirit.
By the end of the story, Tesso and his rat army had not only eaten the sacred texts of the Kyoto temple, but also their statue of Buddha. Given that items held sacred were being destroyed by one who should have revered them, it seems that biting reflects a loss of self-control and civility for the Japanese: a descent into an animal state which can only be answered by civilising forces.
With that being said, the traditional Japanese perception of the mouth definitely is not entirely negative. There is a story of a creature called abumiguchi. It is said that when a powerful general fell in battle, his saddle’s stirrup would come to life with a mouth of its own one hundred years later. It would then wait faithfully on the battlefield for its master, only to never be used again.
The abumiguchi forms part of a broader mythological tradition, where items were thought to acquire sentience through time and use, and often a mouth to express its disappointments. Sating such a spirit usually involved listening to it and then acquiescing to its desires when it was possible. This story in particular seems to not only emphasise the connection between sentience and speech, but also the mouth’s ability to convey loyalty and history.
While these messages may not have been consciously included, telling these stories verbally offered the Japanese a way of communicating their values through subtext, and ensuring everyone had an idea of what their peers feared and were uncomfortable with. The Japanese continue to communicate something of what the mouth meant to pre-modern Japanese culture: the mouth sometimes represented the invasion of personal space, but it was also viewed as a potential source of misfortune and death, and in contrast, of health and life. While Westernisation has greatly changed the face of Japan, some of these values and sentiments still lurk below the surface, like another mouth ready to emerge and make its requests.
This piece is featured in Tongue in Cheek - a magazine of fiction, essays, poetry, cultural commentary and visual art. Coming Soon from the Bowen Street Press.