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Minnetonka High School's Student News

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Asian Urban Legends

A ghost with a gruesome smile. Dogs with human faces. Taxi passengers who vanish before reaching their destination. Japanese culture is filled with fascinating—and often terrifying—urban legends. Frequently involving spirits and other supernatural entities, the stories are well-known in Japanese society, even if public belief in them varies. Among believers, they can be used to warn against certain behaviors or acts. 

The history of Japanese urban legends is diverse and complex. Some have origins in ancient time periods, while others are popularized after modern events—often striking tragedies. One example is the 1932 Shirokiya Department Store deaths, in which 14 saleswomen died. Rumors spread that these women balked at jumping from the rooftop into firemen’s safety nets; wearing underwear under kimonos was not common at the time, so speculation arose that the women refused to jump for fear of exposing themselves. 

Although a real-life event, some people spun the tragedy into an urban legend with unconfirmed, yet widely believed rumors. As the legend spread, women allegedly started wearing underwear with their kimonos, signaling the start of a transition from Japanese dress to westernized clothing trends. 

A different type of urban legend—and one of the most famous—is that of the Kuchisake Onna. Originating in Japan’s Heian period more than 1000 years ago, it has since become a popular tale in modern times, with various depictions in media and a strong presence both in Japan and abroad. The story originally revolves around the beautiful wife of a samurai, whose husband—after seeing the number of suitors pursuing her—brutally cuts open the corners of her mouth to disfigure her. 

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Nowadays, the urban legend describes a young woman wearing a surgical mask who approaches pedestrians at night; she asks them, “Am I beautiful?” then pulls down her mask to reveal her gnarly scars. Depending on the victim’s answer, she will either kill them on the spot or wait to kill them in their sleep. It is said the only way to escape the Kuchisake Onna is by distracting her with a confusing answer, running while she ponders it.

“The Kuchisake Onna of today is a common urban legend spread from Japan to South Korea in books, movies, and television shows,” says Pennsylvania State University in a blog post analyzing the urban legend. “Some even suggest that the Joker from Batman is based off of this ghost, having pale skin with green hair and a scarred smile to connect the dots to a thousand years prior to the creation of the character.”

From ancient legends to more modern ones, these stories have a lasting legacy in society. The next time you go out on a late-night walk, be sure to prepare a response in case you see a woman with a surgical mask coming down the street.

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