CWRU's humor magazine, est. 2000
Well, There Goes Japan: A Column by Shinichi Atatakakunakattakara
There are many strange and interesting mythological and urban legend traditions in Japan, and you’re probably familiar with a few of them. The tales emerge, time and time again, in different forms. Stories that children tell. Horror films. Urban legends. Mythology. The Japanese have been called the most literate people on record with more than 97 percent literacy, while their culture also devours more stories, comics, literature, and news than any other people. That point is well-established, but why the Japanese tell the stories that they do (be they strange, true, or utterly terrifying) is unknown. We just know they do. To share just the surface of this world with you is my single goal.
You’re walking alone in the late evening twilight. You’re on your way home, and just as you think it’s gotten darker than you intended and that you really must hurry on, you notice her: a woman ahead, walking towards you. Did she just arrive? As you approach, you notice she’s wearing a surgical mask, a common custom for the Japanese to do when sick or in allergy season, and think nothing of it. But then she speaks. “Do you think I’m pretty?” You’re shocked and don’t respond. She’s lowering her mask. What’s beneath? Just a mouth? Teeth? She suddenly jerks it away, revealing a long, jagged cut extending her mouth from ear to ear, crusted with blood and splitting with her words: “Do you think I’m pretty?” Who could lie to such a hideous abomination of a face? It hardly looks human. A glint of light reflected from her waistline draws your eyes down and your heart races as you see her left hand holding a bundle of incredibly sharp scalpels. In her right, a single sharp instrument is stained red. Fear overcomes you. You have to respond.
This common legend is used to scare children into coming home before dark. Even though Japan is one of the safest nations in the world (incredibly low crime, especially violent ones and homicides) mothers want children home on time. Kuchisake onna (the slit mouth woman) stalks the night looking for children on their own. Her question is basic, but your response is key. If you say yes, she knows you’re lying and will slit your mouth like hers. Only bad children lie. A no, however, is disrespectful and will also earn you flesh-rending punishment. The key, then, lies in confusing her. Depending on who you ask, telling her she looks average or running away without answering will work to trick her. True to Japanese fashion, however, the best way to avoid her is to say you have a pressing engagement and simply don’t have time to talk.
Beyond horror stories, there are many Japanese creatures who traditionally play tricks or commit crimes. Foxes and Tanuki (Raccoon Dogs) are magic and often play tricks on people. The Tanuki are relatively lazy and only use their magic to quickly get what they want. The Studio Ghibli film Pom-Poko is a great and relatively traditional look at these cute little tricksters. Foxes, however, are much more sly, willing to lie, trick, and take the form of humans. There are legends that they would seduce a man, and are also recorded as using their magic to kill people and even families. But apparently they are generally nice; you just shouldn’t trust one. Weirder are the Kappa, a mythological creature. Though not magic, they do prank humans, or commit gross crimes and even murder. They look like turtles, have the face of a monkey and the bill of a turtle with little bald patches on their heads. They live in the water and mostly prey on people at the river, killing in a terrible way: by reaching their arm up a person’s bottom and into their mouth, the Kappa would pull the tongue all the way down and flip a person inside out to eat their liver. Very weird, probably fatal, and definitely Japanese. In modern day they’ve been forced to live in sewers and prey on people who sit on toilets. As a legend, they threaten those who spend too much time in the bathroom.
Another bathroom horror story is that of the red mantled man. He waits in the girls’ bathroom for a woman to enter, to ask, “Would you rather have a red coat or a blue coat?” A ‘red’ answer gets you a bloody death by decapitation and a blue answer earns you a suffocation by his pale hands. The obvious answer is to name some other color, right? It’s like with the Kuchisake onna: avoid the question. Wrong. Any other color will cause the floor to fall out and a thousand white arms to drag you into hell. Probably a worse ending, I think. Some traditions, however, reveal that an answer of yellow gets you drowned in urine. It’s never said outright, but supposedly running means he’ll be waiting in every bathroom for you. Personally, I would sit on a pair of toilets and hope for a kappa to notice. Not sure it would work, but at least it gives me a shot.
These legends go on and on. A woman who was cut in half by a train drags herself around with her arms and cuts children. A snake woman. Human pillars. No doubt the reader has heard of The Ring and The Grudge, both adapted from Japanese horror films. Horror is all around Japan, and their strange stories stretch beyond the gross and grotesque. Next week I’ll be giving a quick introduction into Japanese Mythology and the bizarre (but not scary) stories from the Japanese past. For now, though, remember to watch out if you’re alone, and that evil beings never really suspect clever responses.
Shinichi, despite the name, is an American citizen, not a foreign exchange student. His parents disowned him 3 years ago when he received a grade of ‘B’ in a certain professor’s MATH 122 class, but he’s pretty sure they still love him. He enjoys Piña Coladas and getting caught in the rain because he is a hopeless romantic, but spends most of his time gaming or watching anime instead.