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In Japan, Mythical 'Amabie' Emerges From 19th Century Folklore To Fight COVID-19

An illustration of an Amabie, a sea monster from 19th century Japanese folklore, that has become an Internet meme and pop culture mascot in the fight against COVID-19.
Kaori Hamura Long
An illustration of an Amabie, a sea monster from 19th century Japanese folklore, that has become an Internet meme and pop culture mascot in the fight against COVID-19.

"Stop the infection from spreading!"

The words appear to come straight from the beak of a creature with a bird's head, human hair and a fish's scaly body, in a recent public service announcement from Japan's health ministry.

In the fight against COVID-19, a sea monster has emerged from 19th century Japanese folklore in countless new iterations — from art to food to fashion — as a symbol of hope, an internet memeand pop culture mascot.

Its name is Amabie, pronounced Ah-mah-bee-ey.

"In 1846, Amabie emerged from the ocean and spoke in human language, predicting six years of good harvests, followed by a wave of diseases," says Kazuhiko Komatsu, an emeritus professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto.

The creature advised: "Draw me and show to the people, so that you can be free from disease," Komatsu says.

The earliest image of Amabie appeared in 1846 in kawaraban, Japanese news sheets printed using clay or wood blocks.

Amabie is a kind of monster or spirit known as yokai, the earliest written records of which date back some 1,200 years, Komatsu explains.

He adds that the Japanese have traditionally drawn yokai through a cathartic process of bringing fears and hopes out of the subconscious and onto paper.

By the Edo period (1603-1868), yokai had started to migrate from the realm of animism to that of entertainment.

"In the Edo era, people began to think that yokai do not really exist, and are created by humans," explains Komatsu. "And at the same time, people started to enjoy pictures of yokai."

At the time, diseases often ravaged the population.

"We are in the same situation as the Edo era," Komatsu says. "A new disease has come up, and people are terrified."

As of Wednesday, Japan had more than 11,500 COVID-19 cases and 281 deaths.

Recent depictions of Amabie use pastel colors, anime artand computer graphics. They have been interpreted by cartoonists, students, illustrators, craftsman and even chefs. They adorn t-shirts, cookies and sweets, figurines and smartphone wallpaper.

Amayagido, an artist in Kanazawa, has been drawing Amabie for over a decade.

"We feel that yokai are not just scary," she says, "but also somehow cute or friendly."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Chie Kobayashi
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