Japan through its urban legends: from Kuchisake onna to Kisaragi station
Fantastic and horror stories that were once told by word of mouth, like something that happened to someone you know, are now being transmitted through digital spaces. An expert in Japanese folklore tells us about the background and birth of this type of urban legends, and the social changes they represent.
An unknown woman, wearing a mask, comes across a child and asks him: "Am I beautiful?" The frightened child answers yes, and the woman removes her mask. "Now you think so too?" His lips part, opening up to his ears ... Almost every Japanese, of whatever age, has ever heard that story, called Kuchisake onna . In recent years it has also become famous abroad, as an example of a Japanese horror story.
According to Iikura Yoshiyuki, professor at Kokugakuin University and researcher of contemporary oral literature, "The story of Kuchisake onna is the most famous of all purely Japanese urban legends
." How is this type of urban legend generated? How does it evolve over time?
Kuchisake onna , a warning about strangers
According to Iikura, at the end of 1978 a rumor began to spread about an elderly farmer from (so they say) Yaotsu, in Gifu prefecture, who claimed to have seen a woman with a mouth from ear to ear in a corner of her garden . "At the beginning of 1979 the newspaper Gifu Nichinichi Shinbun (now Gifu Shinbun ) reported on the rumors of Kuchisake onna , and among the children the story continued to circulate, more and more in detail exaggerated. The woman wore a mask, she wore a red coat .. They even said that he had a sickle in his hand, that he could run a hundred meters in six seconds, that he hated the smell of jelly and that if you gave him a piece of candy he would let you go. "
In just six months, the legend of Kuchisake onna left Gifu and spread to Aomori in the north and Kagoshima in the south. "An important factor in this was the fact that at that time the number of children studying in an academy after school increased a lot. Until then, urban legends had not had much opportunity to leave each school district, but in the academies , which had students from different centers, it was enough for a child to tell about something that had happened in his school for the others to be scared and, thinking that the same could happen in his own center, to tell it in turn to his classmates Some spoke by phone with relatives, and the information was even transmitted through other newspapers and even television networks. "
For children, Kuchisake onna was a terrifying image, and also a warning about strangers. "The academies began their classes in the afternoon, and then the children would flock to the streets and have to return to their homes at night, with what they saw a type of adults as they had never seen before: women with night jobs, people drunk as a vat ... The anxiety that caused them to think that perhaps one of those adults could harm them was projected on the figure of Kuchisake onna ".
"Initially teachers and parents were concerned, and patrolled the streets and routes between the school and the houses. In the early summer of 1979 the legends began to calm down. The striking image of Kuchisake onna , however, remained in the collective imagination , and was established as one of the prototypical ghosts of Japan. "
The first wave: rumors among the young
In the second half of the 1970s, when the Kuchisake onna legend began to spread , Japan's economic structures were changing; vehicles, telephone services, television and other infrastructures that would allow an urban cultural life had been established.
The expression "urban legend" was introduced in Japan in 1988, when a translation of The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends
and Their Meanings was published. work of the American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand. The young and energetic Japanese researchers of the moment translated the work to throw a stone into the quiet pool of Japanese folklore studies, until then based on ancient tales and traditional legends, with the purpose of indicating that investigating such rumors was equivalent to investigating the state of contemporary cities.
Brunvand defined urban legend as "an original story that happens to a friend of a friend, in the course of his everyday urban life." Stories like the hitchhiker who was actually a ghost, or the murderer who hides under the bed. Ghost hitchhikers are a motif that dates back to the 19th century and horse wagons, but they adapted as motor cars entered society, and the development of newspapers and other media facilitated their spread. For example, events that were read in the newspaper or heard on the radio were recounted in every corner of the United States as if they had happened there, adding local characteristics.
"In Japan in the second half of the eighties, word of mouth was everything. Suddenly, for some reason, high school and high school students were standing in long lines at ice cream parlor chains like Hobson's or 31 (Baskin-Robbins), or they all started carrying Boston bags. In urban areas, among students, when word spreads that something is fashionable, information spreads in the blink of an eye. This is an economy in which, On the way to the bubble the bubble, young people have achieved greater purchasing power: high school students and university students work part-time in chain restaurants and twenty-four-hour stores and make their own money. The marketing of the companies began in earnest to take into account that word of mouth from children. "
A representative example of the success of this type of marketing is Lotte's Koara no m?chi (March of the Koalas) cookies . A rumor spread among high school students that it was lucky to find a koala with eyebrows. As a result, the company expanded the variety of koala designs, creating a best-selling brand that celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2019.
"Other examples of the legends of that moment assure that it brings luck to touch the red loincloth of the character that appears drawn on the run in the trucks of the Sagawa transport company; and that the couples who get on a boat from the Shinobazu pond, in Ueno park, break. Magazines and other media picked up rumors like these and word of mouth in their posts, and presented them as 'urban legends.' Writers collected these kinds of stories and purposely exaggerated them, to generate a boom . A good example is the 'dog with a human face', which was presented by the famous Popteen magazine. It was said of him that he spoke like a person, that his face was like that of a middle-aged man, and that he was capable of chasing a car at speeds in excess of 100 kilometers per hour. "
"These urban legends reached the peak of their popularity in the early 1990s, and from 1995 they began to disappear. The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and the terrorist attack of the group Aum Shinriky? with sarin gas in the Tokyo subway took away people wanted to talk about ghosts. The media completely stopped talking about it. "
The Second Wave: Internet Horror Stories
At the beginning of the 21st century, urban legends experienced a second boom. "The first wave of urban legends came from the hand of rumors of children exaggerated by television, magazines and other media. As of 2000, 'text pages', such as blogs and the like, began to proliferate. A dedicated blog The collection of old urban legends became so popular that it was even published as a book; later all sorts of similar works on urban legends began to be published. Those who had been students at that time acquired them out of nostalgia, and the other generations became they were interested in the subject, helping its success. "
On the other hand, magazines and television networks have also published interesting stories that appeared on Ni channeru (Channel 2, a popular Internet forum), which have been forming a new corpus of Japanese urban legends
. Well known are Kunekune the story of the strange white object found by an elementary school student in a rice field in a rural area; Kotoribako , the cursed birdcage; or Hasshaku sama , a terrible female monster of more than two meters. "These are horror stories that are too long to be told orally. These kinds of legends are constantly being generated on the Internet."
More or less from 2010, a new type of participatory stories began to appear, focused on social networks. One of them, The Kisaragi Station , has been counting for more than ten years, going from the original Nichanneru to Twitter. The origin of the story was published in 2004 in Nichanneru "I got on the train in Shinhamamatsu. It was the same train I always use, but we arrived at a station whose name did not ring a bell. What can I do?" It was posted as a query, with questions and answers, and the story continued from there.
"Someone summarizes the story on a separate page, and its contents are republished. The story is written in a false voice, to create the impression of being a conversation on the scene. People participate immediately, connecting to history and helping to create new urban legends. That is the main characteristic of the second wave in the web age . Also, many of them are horror stories. There is also, I think, the feeling of participating in a game of chase virtual game, a ghost simulation game or similar in which a mystery is experienced in the real world. "
Compared with urban legends that were previously transmitted mainly orally, stories that do so digitally oscillate between two extremes: they either barely change, or they change radically. "Since the oral transmission is based each time on the memory of the narrator, even if there are small variations, the plot does not change much. In the case of digital transmission, you can copy and paste the text, but you can also change everything that one wants to. The form of diffusion does not depend on time or distance either. The pace at which stories from abroad have also been accelerated. "
Starting in 2000, the legend of Kuchisake onna also began to spread on the Internet. In South Korea, for example, it adopted different shades from the original Japanese version, such as the red color of the mask. "In Okinawa, Taiwan, South Korea, China and other countries it is said that monsters can only walk in a straight line, so the Korean Kuchisake onna cannot turn a corner, or even climb stairs. boyfriend, a man with a shaved head, also wearing a mask. As legends are exported to countries with urban lifestyles, the stories are gradually adapted to incorporate elements of the culture of that place. "
Internet takotsubo culture and fake news
With the second wave of urban legends, some creators also appeared who made "art" of these stories. "Seki Akio, an ex-comedian, popular since 2006, is a representative example. He rose to fame originally from a variety show, in which he did a space in which various celebrities told urban legends. His motto," You decide whether to believe or not to believe ", he became very popular, and today he continues to perform in concerts and shows such as Yarisugi toshi densetsu (Excessive Urban Legends).
Recently the most popular are the videos of youtubers that analyze urban legends. "For example, the story called Elevator to the other world . If a person rides in an elevator of a building with more than ten floors and presses the buttons in a certain sequence, he can reach the other world. The youtuber in question tries it in reality".
Urban legends, which were once transmitted as if they had happened "to a friend of a friend", in this digital age are spreading even more widely and rapidly, as if they were fashionable games. However, according to Iikura, there are fewer and fewer urban legends that most people come into contact with.
"This is due to the takotsubo effect of the Internet: people who visit a web page tend to be grouped with people of the same opinion, and do not come into contact with other groups. Furthermore, fewer and fewer debate the authenticity of the information; they only believe in what they like, and consider false what they do not like, without questioning the possible interest that may exist in the ambiguity between what is true and what is false ".
Iikura regrets that political measures are currently being used internationally to project anxiety into people's reality. "It is something that applies to illegal immigrants, to China, to South Korea, even to Japan. Precisely because there is a sense of security in the idea that projecting that anxiety on Kuchisake onna or other ghosts is not the same as doing it on real people. . It seems to me that all over the world urban legends are losing ground. Across the globe there is a sense of blockage, and a desire for certainty amid vague insecurity. As it is, the growing number is ironic. of people who resort to fake news and the type of information that specialists call urban legends