Amabié, pronounced “a-ma-bee-ay,” a mermaid or merman-like being in Japanese folklore, is said to arise from the ocean to warn of a coming plague. However, as the legend goes, showing a picture or likeness of the creature or making copies of it can repel pestilence.
The story of Amabié appeared in newspapers called kawaraban in 1846. According to the drawings, it has three legs, fish scales, and a bird’s head. In addition, related yōkai, supernatural entities called Amabiko and Yamawarawa vary in appearance and behavior but always with three legs.
As the story goes:
“The…article describes the discovery of Amabié by an unnamed officer of the law. He spotted it atop the waves off the coast of Kyushu after being dispatched to investigate a strange light. The creature gave its name and prophesied a good harvest. ‘Should an epidemic come,’ it is reported to have uttered, ‘draw me and show me to the people.’ And then it sank beneath the waves, never to be seen again,” writes Matt Alt.
Amabié Images Shared Thousands of Times
As the Covid pandemic arrived in Japan, Manga artists began sharing depictions of the being on social media. Others created sculptures, toys, and all kinds of arts and crafts. In the New Yorker, they described the creature “a mascot for the pandemic.”
The Ministry of Health shared a poster featuring the creature’s likeness.
Mermaid-Like Creatures Appear Everywhere
For example, artist Hide Shigeoka shared a picture of the creature with a tongue-in-cheek caption, “A new Coronavirus countermeasure.” Then, a #Amabie (#アマビエ) hashtag inspired others to create similar tributes in all manner of artistic styles.
While some are cute and cartoonish, others take on a humanoid appearance.
Another person shared a picture of a red-eyed Amabié from the Kashimadai Shrine with the caption, “Please calm the corona infection.” Below right, the Takuminosato resort shared an image of an Amabié sculpture covered in the snow.
In another example, a Japanese Airline shared an image of Amabié printed on the fuselage of a plane.
Although the efforts may not have been taken as a serious way to stop a virus, they helped people connect in solidarity while in isolation. Thus, the creature’s prophecy did seem to help in an important way, after all.
Amabié in the Corona Era
Meanwhile, at the Kadokawa Culture Museum in Tokorozawa, a work created for a group exhibit called “Amabié in the Corona Era” is shown on the walls. Architect Kengo Kuma, who also designed the main stadium of the Tokyo Olympics, imagined the monolithic building as having emerged from the earth’s crust.
Artist Tomoko Konoike’s work entitled “Musashino Hide Tonbi” appeared on the outer wall in early 2021. The yōkai-inspired design is made of cowhide and meant to grow tough as it lives on the wall, interacting with the weather.
Yōkai in Austin, Texas
Amabié has also appeared in Austin, Texas, as part of an “anti-pandemic spirit” campaign after the pandemic began. An artist named “Peelander-Yellow” painted murals featuring colorful modern designs, displayed outdoors in Austin. He is part of a Japanese Action Comic Punk Band, Peelander-Z, based in NYC.
Video by City of Austin Asian American Resouce Center:
Scientists Study an Amabié-Like Mummy
While thousands of people share the mermaid creature’s likenesses, scientists are preparing to study a 300-year-old “mermaid mummy.” The mummified creature has been worshiped at the Enjuin temple in Okayama Prefecture for decades. However, it was kept out of view in a fireproof safe in a paulownia box until recently.
On February 2, the chief priest, Kozen Kuida, 60, removed the 1-foot-long mummy at the Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts veterinary hospital. He likens the mummy to the folklore of Amabié.
“We have worshipped it, hoping that it would help alleviate the coronavirus pandemic even if only slightly,” he said. “I hope the research project can leave (scientific) records for future generations.”
An accompanying note states the creature is a “dried mermaid,” which was “caught in a fishing net on the coast of Tosa Province (present-day Kochi Prefecture) between 1736 and 1741.”
Now, specialists in ichthyology, paleontology, and molecular biology will study the specimen in detail. Then, results are expected to be announced in the autumn.
Initially, Hiroshi Kinoshita, 54, a board member of the Okayama Folklore Society, came up with the idea to test the mummy after learning of its whereabouts in Japan’s first encyclopedia on yōkai from the 1900s. According to Kinoshita, a similar mermaid worshipped elsewhere has a monkey’s upper body and the lower body of a salmon.
As with sharing artwork of the centuries-old yōkai, perhaps merely seeing the mummy holds a similar power to believers?
Video by The Asahi Shimbun Company: