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!

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.

Japan and Yokai

Gashadororo

From ancient to modern times, Japan’s monsters continue to be part of the cultural psyche.

By Komatsu Kazuhiko

Translated from this article

The 1994 Yokai Boom

When Kodansha published my book “New Ideas of Yokaiology” (妖怪学新) in 1994, it was during a renaissance of yokai and kaii—traditional tales of the strange and unexpected.

In March of that year, yokai researcher Tanaka Takako published his groundbreaking “Cities Seen in the Hyakki Yagyo” (百鬼夜行の見える都市). In June, Yumemakura Baku sparked an unprecedented interest in Onmyoji and Abe Seimei with the first book in his Majūgari trilogy. Then in September, novelist Natsuhiko Kyogoku used yokai tales as raw materials for his mystery novel debut “The Summer of Ubume” (姑獲鳥の夏). Meanwhile in July of 1994, director Takahata Isao was inspired by the development of the Tama Hills area of Tokyo to make the film “Pom Poko” (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ), based on yokai folklore surrounding tanuki.

Since that initial boom, history and art museums across Japan roll out yokai and folklore exhibitions every summer. They offer explorations of yokai culture and history, and displays of supernatural-themed artwork and artifacts. These summer exhibitions are hugely popular, and never fail to draw large crowds year after year.

Looking at all of the books and films that have been published since 1994, it would appear that the public appetite for yokai is unending. Any naysayers who claim the yokai boom is over quickly find themselves laughed out of the room.

Why does this interest in yokai and strange tales persist? Perhaps it is because yokai have become deeply entrenched in subcultures like anime and comics. Since the collapse of the Bubble Economy, most of Japan’s industries have been stagnant except for pop culture. Japanese pop culture has also expanded to the international stage. Many who have never heard words like “yokai” or “Abe Seimei” or “Onmyoji” hear these terms in Japanese entertainment, and the concepts seem fresh and exciting, rejuvenating interest in Japanese culture and folklore.

New Ideas of Yokaiology

Why Do People Create Yokai?

I wasn’t aware of being part of a new movement when I was writing “New Ideas of Yokaiology.” I only wanted to precisely arrange and express my thoughts about the study of yokai and the supernatural.

One of my main purposes in the book was to explore a different avenue of thought regarding yokai than from the works of Yanagita Kunio which dominated folklore studies. Specifically, I wanted to turn away from his idea that yokai were basically devolved or unworshipped kami.

Yanagita conjectured that yokai were the leftover deities of old religions that had faded. But I felt that couldn’t explain their relevance in modern society, and how new yokai continued to be created. Why did people create yokai? What purpose did they serve? Can they only be studied from a historical perspective, or are there some special characteristics of Japanese yokai culture? These the questions that welled up in my studies.

In my book, I found that a unique element of yokai study is how many other disciplines it touches. In order to properly discuss yokai many scholars came together into a roundtable, into the combined discipline of yokaiology (妖怪学). These scholars are enthusiastic in their pursuit of yokai, and together have written a “New Yokaiology Declaration” (新しい妖怪学宣言). From this, yokaiology was embraced as a serious form of study.

For my part, I think yokai are an expression of human imagination and creativity. I study them as a cultural phenomenon. Yokai can arise from anything with a human connection; from animals, plants, or minerals. They are born in the world between human observation and human imagination. To me that means that to say I study yokai must mean that I also study humans. You cannot separate the supernatural from their human creators. Yokaiology is a branch of anthropology. Through the study of yokai, we can learn about human nature as well.

Years into the study of yokai, it has been come clear that yokaiology is an important part of the overall study of Japanese culture. It is a rich source of material and information. It is a history that stretches from the time of the Kojiki and the Nihonshiki. Along that time a countless variety of yokai have been born, countless yokai stories told and art created. Not because they are something we fear, but because playing with the mysterious brings us great pleasure. They bring joy to our everyday life.

The tradition of yokai is very much alive in modern Japan. They are almost universally loved. In fact, yokai are at the very foundation of Japanese culture, and we cannot neglect such important research.

Translator’s Note:

I thought this article by yokai scholar Komatsu Kazuhiko was interesting, and I finally found the time to translate it. He makes some wonderful points about yokai, and has a unique perspective on seperating yokai from the traditional interpretations of Yanagita Kunio.

Also a reminder that my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is finally published! Thanks to everyone for your patience in getting it out, and if you haven’t ordered it yet, well …

Yurei_Japanese_Ghost_Cover

Kurobozu – The Black Monk

Kurobuzu

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

If you wake up after a restless night, with reeking breath and gasping for air—beware! You might have had a visit from the breath-stealing Kurobozu; the Black Monk.

What Does Kurobozu Mean?

It doesn’t get less complicated than this! 黒 (Kuro; Black) + 坊主 (Bozu; Monk). As with many yokai, the “monk” part does not have any particular religious meaning. Many yokai have this as part of their name, which could just as easily mean “stranger.” Kurobozu is also used as an alternate name for other yokai like the umibōzu and takabozu.

During the Edo period, classes and traveling were high restricted. Most were not permitted to leave their home town, and posted waypoints on the road rigorously checked passports to make sure everyone stayed put. Itinerant monks were one of the few classes allowed free travel, so they were often the only unfamiliar faces who ever wandered into town.

That and the bald heads. Almost every yokai with “bozu” in its name is inevitably bald.

What Does a Kurobozu Look Like?

Aside from the bald head, the Kurobozu is depicted as vaguely human-like, although shrouded in a pitch black monk’s robe. It is like a living shadow. Its head is featureless, except for the vague appearance of two eyes that sometimes reflect the light. The lack of face leads some to consider the Kurobozu to be a type of Nopperabo.

Based on the two types of Kurobuzo stories, the images are often merged into a bear-like monster wrapped in a monk’s robes.

The Kurobozu of Tokyo

During the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), sensationalist newspapers ran illustrated stories of crime, yokai, and other supernatural happenings. These stories were often very short; a bit of text accompanied by an eye-catching illustration. This is how the Kurobozu entered the yokai pantheon, in the 663rd issue of the Yubinhouchi Shinbun (郵便報知新聞; Postal Intelligence Newspaper).

A family living in the Kimata area of Tokyo reported a strange disturbance. Each night while they were sleeping a strange presence would appear in their bedrooms. The presence hovered over the wife, leaning close to her. It slobbered over her face, and sucked her sleeping breath from her mouth. In the morning, the wife’s breath and face would stink of rotting flesh. She fell ill. Unable to tolerate it any longer, the wife went to stay at a relative’s house. The mysterious Kurobozu did not follow her there, and she was able to recover her health. After some time, she returned home and has reported no further disturbance. The Kurobozu has disappeared.

The Kurobozu of Kumano

There is another legend of a creature called a Kurobozu that comes from the Edo period, and is recorded as a local legend of Kumano in the kidan-shu Sankawa Kidan (三州奇談; Romantic Tales of Three Rivers).

The story tells of a hunter who encounters a large, black monster out in the woods, looking something like a black bear. When the hunter shot it with his rifle, the monster grew in size until it was several meters tall. Terrified the hunter fired again, and the monster fled, moving over the difficult terrain at an incredible pace, almost as if it was flying.

Translator’s Note:

I am writing up some yokai to be used in the Pathfinder roleplaying game bestiary. The Kurobozu is one of these! (Expect more to come!)

The Kurobozu is one of many yokai about which little is known other than these two stories. It is very similar in appearance and actions to the yokai called yamachichi (山地乳), a monkey-like monster that also sneaks in at night to suck up a sleeper’s breath.

There are obvious explanations for both these yokai—either a cat snuggling up on a sleeper’s chest appearing monstrous when seen through the eyes of someone still half in dream, or the well-known phenomenon of sleep paralysis.

But no matter the real-world explanation, the Kurobozu still makes a pretty cool monster. So if you are a fan of pen-and-paper roleplaying games, go dive into the world of Pathfinder and do battle with some yokai.

Previous Older Entries

Copyright notification

All translations and other writing on this website were created by Zack Davisson and are copyright to him.

Copyright notification

In accessing these web pages, you agree that any downloading of content is for personal, non-commercial reference only.

No part of this web site may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of Zack Davisson.

Copyright notification

For rights clearance please contact Zack at:

zack.davisson (at) gmail.com

Thank you.

%d bloggers like this: