Two Tales of Mermaid Meat

Ningyo Niku

Translated from Opinions About Life and Death as Told by the Legend of Yaobikuni, Japanese Wikipedia, and this Blog

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

Japan has mermaids, but they are very different creatures from western folklore. They can take many shapes, but the most common in the form of a fish with a woman’s head. And even then, appearance is not their most distinctive feature—eating the flesh of a mermaid is said to grant an extended lifespan. And sometimes it does something else.

Yaobikuni – The Eight-Hundred Year Nun

Yaobukini Shrine

One of Japan’s most famous folk legends, variations of this story can be found across the entire country. Most versions of the story involve a fisherman who catches a strange fish. He brings it home to cook for his family and a friend. The friend notices that the fish has a human face, and advises them not to eat it. The fisherman throws the fish away, but his hungry daughter slips into the kitchen and eats it any way. Cursed with immortality, she becomes known as Yaobikuni—the eight-hundred year nun.

Here is an interesting variation translated from Takeshi Noji’s “Opinions About Life and Death as Told by the Legend of Yaobikuni” [八百比丘尼伝承の死生観]. Notice the difference about how the mermaid flesh is discovered.

One day a man was invited to dine and be entertained at the house of another man whom he had never met before. Now, this was a man learned in Buddhism and who had attended many lectures, and he knew that many such invitations lead to places such as the Palace of the Dragon King or to a dead man’s abode. He accepted, but was on his guard.

When the feast came, he saw that he was being served mermaid meat. He was repulsed by the feast and did not eat it, but slipped some of the mermaid meat in his pocket as a souvenir of his strange adventure. Unfortunately, when he came home that night his daughter searched his pockets to see if her father had brought her a treat, and gobbled down the mermaid meat. From that time on she did not age.

Her life become one of bitter loneliness. She married several times, but her husbands aged and died while she went on. All of her friends and loved ones died as well. Eventually she became a nun, and left her village to wander the country. At ever place she visited, she planted a tree—either cedar, camellia, or pine. She eventually settled at Obama village in Wakasa province (Modern day Fukui prefecture) where she planted her final set of trees. The trees still stand to this day, and are said to be 800 years old.

Three Cedars of Togakushi

Three Cedars of Togakushi

Normally, mermaid legends are found on port towns bordering the sea. But this story comes from Togakushi of Nagano, approximately 65km away from the shore. This legend follows the same beginning as the well-known Yaobikuni legend, but adds it’s own cruel twist.

One day, a fisherman caught a mermaid in the ocean. The poor creature begged for it’s life, but the fisherman didn’t listen and killed it. He brought the meat home to where he lived with his family and three children.

The following day, when he was out fishing, his hungry children crept into the storage box in the kitchen and gorged themselves on the mermaid flesh. Soon after their bodies began to change. Their skin sprouted scales like that of a fish. At the end of their torment, they died. The father was wracked with grief, and bitterly regretted his actions. But it was too late.

In a dream, a divine messenger told him “To save your children’s souls, make a pilgrimage to Togakushi, and plant three cedar trees to honor them.” The father did as he was told, and travelled the 400km to Togakushi to plant the trees.

They trees are still there, called the Sanbonsugi of Togakushi (Three Cedars of Togakushi) where they are worshipped in a Shinto shrine.

Three Cedars of Togakushi Sign

Translator’s Note:

I came across this blog post on the Three Cedars of Togakushi, and thought it was an interesting legend to post about! However, you can’t really put the Togakushi legend into context without the much-more famous story of Yaobikuni, so there they both are!

I like the variation of Yaobikuni that I found. Like the legend of Okiku, there are hundreds of different versions of her story spread all across Japan, each one changed in just a few key details. This one features a wily man who is too smart to fall under a spirit’s spell, but is then undone by his own daughter.

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13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lady39jane
    Sep 24, 2015 @ 08:55:11

    Very interesting. The mange artist Rumiko Takahashi (InuYasha!) produced a short series early in her career based on the mermaid legend. It was later collected in a three volume set called Mermaid Saga. The main character accidentaly consumes mermaid flesh, and spends the rest of the story trying to find a cure. Verrry creapy, very tragic. Sound familiar?

    Reply

  2. 83n831
    Sep 24, 2015 @ 09:30:24

    The Yaobikuni version (woman cursed to outlive all her partners) is also used as a plot thread in CLAMP’s manga xxxHolic, vol. 17.

    Reply

  3. Steve Vernon
    Sep 24, 2015 @ 09:57:06

    Reblogged this on YOURS IN STORYTELLING… and commented:
    Nothing I like better than a good old-fashioned mermaid story – except maybe TWO of them!

    Reply

  4. Susana
    Sep 24, 2015 @ 12:13:14

    Very interesting (and sad) stories. I knew about mermaid flesh giving those who eat it immortality, but I had never heard about these stories. I’ve always found fascinating how different mermaids are in different places, bet Disney wouldn’t like this version that much 😄

    Reply

    • lady39jane
      Sep 24, 2015 @ 13:33:18

      Disney’s version was based on Hans Christian Anderson, which DID NOT have a happy ending, The prince married a princess, and the mermaid was left trapped between the land and the sea. If you look very carefully at the famous statue in Copanhagen, her legs end in formless flippers; she cannot walk, can no longer swim. In many cultures such stories end tragically.

      Reply

  5. skdeveloper2015
    Sep 25, 2015 @ 07:53:17

    Reblogged this on Sakura Creations and commented:
    Two interesting stories about mermaids from Ancient Japanese folktales.

    Reply

  6. Trackback: Two Tales of Mermaid Meat 百物語怪談会 Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai | Sakura Creations
  7. Cherya
    Sep 26, 2015 @ 04:28:47

    Very interesting! Just love these folklore stories. Reminds me of the story
    of the fisherman and the talking fish he catches, who will grant him three wishes, if
    the fisherman will release him. The fisherman’s wife wishes to be young so the fish makes the fisherman older. The wife wishes for gold and the wish is granted. At night thieves break into the fishermans house. Before the thieves do any harm, the fisherman wishes for their lives to be as before.

    Reply

  8. Anonymous
    Feb 04, 2016 @ 10:24:40

    Love the inversion of conventional thinking; that eternal life should be a curse bestowed by accident. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  9. Shiro Samurai
    Feb 04, 2016 @ 13:33:24

    Interesting!
    I knew that consuming mermaid flesh gave you immortality but I didn’t know those other stories!
    I first found out about the mermaid flesh tale because it was used for one of the many characters you encounter in the amazing video game called Ōkami. Said game features a lot of Japanese legends, Gods and super-natural beings (Yamato no Orochi, Kyuubi etc) and you even play with a white wolf God who is actually Amaterasu. It’s definitely worth checking out! Easily one of my favorite games ever – it’s breathtakingly beautiful in visuals, lasts for a long time and the soundtrack is amazing too.

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Feb 11, 2016 @ 10:38:53

      I played a bit of Okami years ago and it was fun! But I don’t really play video games … so I’m afraid I didn’t get very far into it. I still have it though, so maybe someday!

      Reply

  10. Trackback: Immortality and Mermaids – Afterlife Art

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