Amabie – The Healing Mermaid

Sourced and translated from Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, Yokai Jiten, Nihon Kokugo Dai-ten, and Other Sources

Out on the seas comes upon a strange vision. A three-legged half-fish person rises from the water and speaks a prediction; this year shall bring a great wealth of crops followed by a devastating plague. However, the fish creature says, show my picture to anyone stricken down by the disease and they shall be healed.

Amabie are one of several prophetic yokai. The follow the same basic pattern as modern chain emails, warning that horrific things will happen if their image is not shared widely. This causes people to replicate the image and share them with as many people as possible.

The legend of the amabie arose during the Edo period and has been all but forgotten over the years until a resurgence during the Covid pandemic of 2020.

What does Amabie mean?

The word Amabie (アマビエ) is written entirely in katakana, giving no clue as to its meaning. “Ama” phonetically can mean nun (尼), female diver (海女), or fisherman (海士). “Bie” in the Higo dialect is related to fish. Therefore amabie most likely refers to some sort of merfolk.

The History of Amabie

There is only one single account of an Amabie. It appeared in the Edo period, in the third month of the 3rd year of Koka (mid-May, 1846 by modern calendars), in Higo province, modern day Kumamoto period.  Locals reported a strange, glowing light appearing in the sea each night. Finally a government official was sent out on a boat to investigate.

When they arrived at the glow, a strange creature appeared. It spoke, saying “I am an Amabie, who lives in the sea. For six years hence crops will be abundant across all provinces. But a horrible plague shall spread. For those who succumb, show them my image as soon as possible and they will be cured.”  With that said, the creature sank back into the sea.

The official drew an illustration of what he saw, showing a chimeric creature with a bird’s beak, fish scales, long hair, and three finned feet. The story and illustration were printed in kawaraban woodblock-printed broadsides and disseminated across Japan.

Mermaid Legends and Pandemics

The amabie is not the first magical mermaid to appear in Japan. In Tensho 9 (1581), Tokugawa vassal Matsudaira Ieda drew this illustration in his diary and wrote that a mermaid had appeared in a dried rice field on New Year’s Day in Azuchi. It was more than six feet tall, and ate several people.

The year before Ieda’s illustration Japan had suffered heavy rains and flooding, followed by a pandemic that killed many across the country. Temples were filled with people praying for an end to the pandemic.

Using yokai as amulets of protection against disease was a common tradition in Japan, usually images of oni that were meant to frighten off epidemics. There is some evidence of mermaid prayer amulets being used at the time.

Amabie Variations

While the Amabie is the best known, there are many variations on the same story, some of them older. It has been suggested that the Amabie is a misheard or mistranscribed versions of earlier stories, mixed with mermaid legends.

Folklorist Yamato Koichi identified seven variations of amabie. Nagano Eishun later expanded this to nine. While their physical forms are different, most share similar stories offering predictions of both a bumper crop followed by plague, and the mitigation of showing pictures of their image.

Here are some of them:

Amabiko  (海彦; 海 (ama, sea) + 彦 (hiko, boy).

The earliest version with an exact age appeared in Echigo province, now Nigata prefecture, in Tempo 15 (1844). The kawaraban “Tsubokawamoto.” The illustration shows a creature with three legs growing out of its head, with no body. The accompanying text says this creature prophesied that 70% of Japan would die that year if not shown this image.

Amabiko  (尼彦; 尼 (ama, nun) + 彦 (hiko, boy)

The text states that in Meiji 15 (1852), a person named Hikozaemon Shibata heard a monkey’s voice every night, and eventually tracked it down to the source. He encountered the Amabito who delivered the usual dire warning.

The veracity of this account is dubious, as it says it took place in “Shinji town,” which does not exist, and uses the name Kumamoto prefecture instead of Higo province, showing that it was created after the abolition of the feudal clan system in 1871.

Amabiko Nyudo (尼彦; 尼 (ama, nun) + 彦 (hiko, boy) + 入道 (nyudo, priest)

This variation comes from Hyuga provice (Miyazaki prefecture). It tells the same account as the other Amabiko but with a different image.

 

Amahiko no Mikoto (天日子尊; Amahiko, sunlight + Mikoto, noble child)

This version comes from Yuwaza in Nigata prefecture, and appeared in the Tokyo Nichi-Nichi newspaper in Meiji 8 (1875).  This version was said to have appeared in a rice field. The illustration shows something like a four-legged version of a daruma doll. This version carries the name of “mikoto” identifying it as something holy, and it professed to be a servitor of the heavenly gods.

Arie (アリエ)

In 1876, the Yamanishi Nichi-Nichi newspaper reported a similar version of the tale, with a different version of the creature under the name of Arie. It was said to have come out of the ocean in Kumamoto and made its prediction. As many of the details were incorrect, this was declared a hoax at the time.

Why all of these Amabie?

No one really knows what sparked the proliferation of amabie stories at the time. Speculation is that the stories of disaster and salvation played on people’s fears and made for a good sales pitch for the kawaraban broadsides. As there was little contact between towns at the time, they would have been unaware of the other variations of the legend. Enterprising traveling salesmen could have encountered the stories and then concocted their own legends.

There was no pandemic in the 1840s, although cholera would reach Japan in the 1850s, and the third bubonic plague pandemic would strike in 1896. However, the fear of disease was constant and many households would have not wanted to take the risk by not buying a picture of the amabie when offered.

The modern resurgence of amabie was sparked on March 6th, 2020, when the Kyoto University Library Twitter account posed an image of the 1846 illustration with an account of the manifestation. On March 17th, the family of Shigeru Mizuki posted his version of the yokai as well to pass on its blessing. From there, Japan’s artists’ imagination was sparked and images of of the healing yokai began to spread across the internet.

Translator’s Note:

Well, it has been three years since I have posted anything new on this site! I started this when I was an amateur, and since it lead to professional work and writing my own books and lecturing I really didn’t have time to maintain this site as a hobby.

But it seemed like this was the time to come back and make another post! May the spirit of the Amabie live on and help us all out in these troubled times!

I rarely visit this site anymore, but anyone who wants to see what I am up to can find me at https://zackdavisson.com/

 

History of Ghost Taxis of Japan

Yurei_Taxi_Shigeru_Mizuki

Translated and Sourced from Shigeru Mizuki’s Mujara, Japanese Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings, and Paranormal Phenomena, and Other Sources

To learn more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

The yūrei of Japan have been riding taxis again. While they tend to eschew trains and busses, since taxis appeared around the late Taisho period yūrei have been hailing cabs for quick rides around town.

In Japan Ghost Passengers, taxi drivers have been reporting ghostly passengers who climb on board, ask to be taken to a destination, then mysteriously vanish before paying their toll. The recent spate of ghostly passengers have been attributed to the 2011 Fukushima disaster, as the dead struggle to find their way home—or may not even know they are dead.

This is no new phenomenon. One of the first things I ever wrote on yūrei was Tales of Ghostly Japan for Japanzine back in (I think) 2005:

True Tales of Tokyo Terror Taxis

Yurei Taxi

The cabdriver knew that the ghosts of Japan were not confined to ancient graveyards and shadow-haunted shrines. Any modern resident of the nation’s capital could tell you that the taxis of Tokyo are more haunted than hearses, and his own route took him regularly through open gates to the spirit world. There was Sendagaya tunnel, which winds beneath the cemetery of Senjuiin Temple, or Shirogane tunnel, where legend has it that screaming faces are silhouetted against the tunnel’s pillars and through which the Shinigami – the spirit of Death itself – is said to pass. All of his fellow cabbies could wax a yarn of passengers who got on then disappeared, or of catching a glimpse of a woman or child’s face in the rear view mirror. He too had a story to tell.

It was a stormy autumn night, near Aoyama Cemetery, where he picked up a poor young girl drenched by the rain. It was dark, so he didn’t get a good look at her face, but she seemed sad and he figured she had been visiting a recently deceased relative or friend. The address she gave was some distance away, and they drove in silence. A good cabbie doesn’t make small talk when picking someone up from a cemetery.

When they arrived at the address, the girl didn’t get out, but whispered for him to wait a bit, while she stared out the window at a 2nd floor apartment. Ten minutes or so passed as she watched, never speaking, never crying; simply observing a solitary figure move about the apartment. Suddenly, the girl asked to be taken to a new address, this one back near the cemetery where he had first picked her up. The rain was heavy, and the driver focused on the road, leaving the girl to her thoughts.

When he arrived at the new address, a modern house in a good neighborhood, the cabbie opened the door and turned around to collect his fare. To his surprise, he found himself staring at an empty back seat, with a deep puddle where the girl had been sitting moments before. Mouth open, he just sat there staring at the vacant seat, until a knocking on the window shook him from his reverie.

The father of the house, seeing the taxi outside, had calmly walked out bringing with him the exact charge for the fare. He explained that the young girl had been his daughter, who died in a traffic accident some years ago and was buried in Aoyama Cemetery. From time to time, he said, she hailed a cab and, after visiting her old boyfriend’s apartment, asked to be driven home. The father thanked the driver for his troubles, and sent him on his way.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker

Anyone with a knowledge of folklore can easily recognize these tales of disappearing passengers as The Vanishing Hitchhiker. It is an ancient legend—the oldest known account dates back to ancient Rome, when Proculus meets a traveler on the road, who disappears after revealing himself as Romulus, one of Rome’s legendary founders. The story is known in almost every country with slight variations. In his 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Jan Harold Brunvand says the legend has “recognizable parallels in Korea, Tsarist Russia, among Chinese-Americans, Mormons, and Ozark mountaineers.”

The story has a basic pattern. A driver picks up a passenger; either a customer for a taxi cab or a hitchhiker. The passenger requests a destination, and the two chat a bit while the driver speeds along. When the arrive at the destination, the driver turns around to find the passenger vanished—always leaving some trace of the phantom passenger to prove they existed. The trace can be a lost glove, or a puddle of water from the rain, or evidence on a taxi meter. There is often some additional confirmation, such as a graveyard with their name, or a father coming out to pay the fare.

They are always told as true stories, not legends—and maybe they are.

Driverless Yūrei Taxi Cabs

In his yokai encyclopedia Mujara, folklorist and artist Shigeru Mizuki records a different type of haunted taxi—the driverless vehicles known as 無人車幽霊タクシ—Driverless Yūrei Taxis.

In about 1931, there were rumors of a driverless taxi that drove the streets in the vicinity of the Imperial Palace. At night, taxis would line up for passengers, and they often saw a taxi whizzing dangerously through the streets. Looking inside they could see no one at the wheel. After the car was gone, they would look on the streets but could find no trace of its passing. However, those that saw the care would inevitably meet with an accident within two days. Taxi drivers that worked near the Imperial Palace were terrified of glimpsing the phantom vehicle.

Similar driverless vehicles were reported on the Gotemba interchange between Tokyo and Nagoya, and in the Namba area of Osaka. Most reported the cars as white and travelling at unsafe speeds.

The Phantom Rickshaw

There are older tales from the same area near Gotemba, of a white rickshaw that would travel through town without anyone pulling it. The rickshaw often had a family crest painted on the back, and was attributed either to a murdered member of that family, or to a yūrei from a nearby burial mound. Apparently across the years the spirit has upgraded himself to modern technology.

Who knows what vehicle he may ride in the future?

Translator’s Note:

This entry was an answer to the numerous people who sent me the MSN story of modern taxi yūrei currently haunting Japan. It was great to see the ghosts of Japan are still up to their old tricks! And nostalgic remembering my very first yūrei article written more than 10 years ago!

I also wanted to have something new for Folklore Thursday on Twitter! If you are a fan of legends and lore, join in the fun every Thursday!

Big Sale on Yurei: The Japanese Ghost !!!

Yurei_Japanese_Ghost_Cover

So, I promise not to turn this into a big advertisement for my works, but this current sale on Amazon is too amazing not to pass on to interested readers of Japanese folklore.

As I write this, Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is 52% off on Amazon.com. I can’t guarantee how long that discount will remain in place–this is all Amazon’s doing, not mine! But it’s a great chance for anyone interested in my book to get it at a super price!

Here’s the link:

Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Zack Davisson Yurei Japanese Ghost Interior

The Secret Biwa Music That Caused the Yurei to Lament

And if you are interested in any stocking stuffers, my publisher Chin Music Press has my translation of the Miminashi Hoichi (Earless Hoichi) story for sale for $5.

Miminashi Hoichi Zack Davisson Tony Harris

The Secret Biwa Music That Caused the Yurei to Lament

Thanks! I do this site for free, and while I love it I really appreciate anyone supporting me and this site by buying some of my books and translations!!! Thanks for your support!!!

Message from Mizuki Shigeru’s Family

Shigeru Mizuki and his Family

Translated from the official statement:

“My father is dead.”

I still can’t believe I am saying those words.

“I’m going to live to be a 100 … no, maybe 120 or so.” That’s what Mizuki used to always say. With the advance of every year he got closer to that number, and we just thought he would keep going on forever.

At the end of last year, he suffered a heart attack and was in the hospital for two months. He came back home in February but was confined to a wheel chair. His body was weakened by the experience, but his spirit was as strong as ever. He improved bit by bit, until he was able to walk again. Eventually with rehabilitation, he could walk the 1 kilometer from the house to his office. And then his appetite returned, and he was able to say his favorite words “We got anything good to eat?”

“The gods decide when the end is, and we must abide by that,” Mizuki would say. He thought the best thing was to move on was peacefully without pain, and surrounded by family.

When he fell at his house (NOTE: the fall that eventually lead to his death), it was devastating. But perhaps that was the gods’ decision as well.

To my father, his family was the most important thing in the world. Even now he will continue to watch over us and protect us. And perhaps now he is in the company of his old comrades-in-arms who have welcomed him home.

A final message to his fans and everyone he worked with.

For a long time, you have supported our father. From our hearts, thank you.

Otsukare, Sensei—Goodbye to Mizuki Shigeru

Shigeru Mizuki in Hat

There is nothing sad about the death of Mizuki Shigeru. And I say this as someone who shed more than a few tears when I heard the news last night. He lived about as good a life that could possibly be lived; the ripe old age of 93; wealthy in every way that matters; respected by his peers; beloved. He died a good death. The only thing that is sad is that the rest of us now have to live in a world that doesn’t have Mizuki Shigeru. And we are poorer for it.

mizuki3

To say that Mizuki Shigeru was a comic artist is like saying the Brothers Grimm crafted a quaint book of fairy stories or that Walt Disney made some cartoons. Mizuki was one of those rare human beings who unequivocally changed the world with his art. Without Mizuki the world—and especially Japan—would be a very different place. There would be no Pokémon, no Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. His presence is so ubiquitous as to be almost unnoticeable. The way Mizuki saw the world has become the world. He saved the spirits and magic he loved from the darkness and gave them a new home.

Shigeru_Mizuki_Peru_Snakes

He was a visionary. A philosopher. A radical. A bon viviant of the mundane. Mizuki relished the simple, sheer joy of being alive. As someone who knew the actual soul destroying pains of hunger and the terror of hanging from a cliff by your fingertips while hiding from an enemy patrol, a cheap hamburger in a full belly brought him more delight than the most expensive piece of handcrafted sushi. He believed in taking it easy, in enjoying life, and often scoffed at manga artists like Osamu Tezuka and Fujiko F Fujio who prided themselves on their hard work and long hours. They’re all dead, he would say, but I’m still here.

Young Shigeru Mizuki

Of course, he was a comic artist, and one of the best the world has ever seen. He was a natural born artist—a true prodigy who, like Picasso, could draw untaught with amazing precision before he could barely read. His teachers arranged his first solo exhibition of his works when he was in Elementary school. Mizuki himself often downplayed his talents, as he did everything about himself. But he was an undeniable genius. Coming back from WWII an arm short, it took him many years to rebuild his ability to its previous level, but his art grew like a tidal wave as he moved from kamishibai, to manga, to gekiga, to his yokai encyclopedias.

mizukishigeru_drawing

I am sure there will be no shortage of articles recapping his extraordinary career. So instead I will give you something of Mizuki the philosopher.

Mizuki Shigeru’s Seven Rules of Happiness.

#7 – Believe in what you cannot see – The things that mean the most are things you cannot hold in your hand.

#6 – Take it easy – Of course you need to work, but don’t overdo it! Without rest, you’ll burn yourself out.

#5 – Talent and income are unrelated – Money is not the reward of talent and hard work. Self-satisfaction is the goal. Your efforts are worthy if you do what you love.

#4 – Believe in the power of love – Doing what you love, being with people you love. Nothing is more important.

#3 – Pursue what you enjoy – Don’t worry if other people find you foolish. Look at all the people in the world who are eccentric—they are so happy! Follow your own path.

#2 – Follow your curiosity – Do what you feel drawn towards, almost like a compulsion. What you would do without money or reward.

#1 – Don’t try to win – Success is not the measure of life. Just do what you enjoy. Be happy.

Mizuki Shigeru Family off to War

Mizuki Shigeru was in every way my hero. It has been my great honor to translate my hero’s comics, and share my love of him. I made a vow almost 10 years ago in a friend’s bar that I would bring this unique genius to the English-speaking world, and with Drawn & Quarterly I have made good on that vow.

I am so happy that I was able to do this while he was still alive; it seems too often we only recognize great artists posthumously. One of my favorite photos is Mizuki holding the copies of Showa: A History of Japan that I translated, along with the Eisner Award they won for him. I now hope that we will continue to bring even more of his great legacy to a wider audience. He had so much to share.

mizuki-2015comicon01

As for Mizuki himself, he did not fear death, and saw it as a natural part of a world that was full of mystery and wonder. Decades ago he designed and commissioned his own tomb, which he has referred to in interviews as his new home.

Mizuki Shigeru New Home

He would often make jokes that he would be moving into his new home soon. I hope he finds it as comfortable and jolly as he had hoped. I am sure he is enjoying his well-earned rest amongst his yokai friends. They have been waiting for him for a long time.

お疲れ様でした、先生。 Goodbye, Teacher.

Zack Davisson

Mizuki Shigeru Rest in Peace

(Art by my friend Benjamin Warner. Thanks for that, Ben. You made me cry again, you jerk. But it’s beautiful.)

Here are Mizuki Shigeru’s works in English as currently available. If you haven’t already, please give them a try. The more you read, the more we can make.

NonNonBa
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
Kitaro
Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan (Showa: A History of Japan)
Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan (Showa: A History of Japan)
Showa 1944-1953: A History of Japan (Showa: A History of Japan)
Showa 1953-1989: A History of Japan (Showa: A History of Japan)
Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler
The Birth of Kitaro
Kitaro Meets Nurarihyon
Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels

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