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How 13th-Century “Mermaid Bones” Came to Be Displayed in a Japanese Temple

According to legend, the ningyo washed ashore on the Japanese island of Kyushu in 1222

The Ryuguji temple (Flickr/NelC)
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In Japan, mermaids are not the conventionally attractive creatures that they have been depicted as in Disney movies. Called ningyo, Wu Mingren at Ancient Origins writes, the fish-like creatures vary in appearence, often said to have pointy teeth, and sometimes, menacing horns. They also are purported to have mystical abilities.

Today, the “bones” of a 13th-century ningyo are on display at Ryuguji temple in Fukuoka, reports Shinjiro Sadamatsu at The Asahi Shimbun.

But how did its bones get there?

According to legend, on April 14, 1222, a mermaid washed ashore in Hakata Bay, on the Japanese island of Kyushu. After a shaman declared the mermaid a good omen for the nation, its bones were then buried at the Ukimido temple, which people took to calling Ryūgū-jō, which in Japanese folklore translates to the undersea palace of the dragon god.

Many believe that what Japanese fishermen and seamen perceived to be mermaids, or ningyo, were actually dugong. Dugong are large sea mammals that live in the warm coastal waters; they are related to (and resemble) the manatee. They generally travel alone or in pairs and can remain underwater for up to six minutes at a time.

It’s possible that the specific Ryuguji temple bones came from a finless porpoise (neophocaena phocaenoides). These creatures have no dorsal fin (hence their name). Finless porpoises swim off the coast of Japan and in the area of Fukuoka Prefecture; if one washed ashore in 1222, it’s not a far stretch to think the locals could have mistook it for a mermaid.

During the Edo period, between 1772 and 1781, the bones of the temple’s mermaid were removed from their resting place, and visitors to the temple were able to partake of water in which the mermaid bones had been soaked. At the time, people claimed that soaking in the bones could protect bathers from epidemics.

Today, six of its bones remain at the temple, which is now officially called the Ryuguji temple. The bones can be seen by appointment, and they appear smooth and glossy, writes Sadamatsu, a look achieved by centuries of handling.

When asked whether the bones are actually from a mermaid, Yoshihito Wakai, the vice director of the Toba Aquarium, demures. He tells Sadamatsu, “I cannot say anything definitively. I think it’s better to keep a legend a legend.”

Ryuguji temple is not the only holy place in Japan to have a mermaid relic. One of the oldest-known mermaid shrines in Japan is at Fujinomiya, near Mount Fuji, reports Atlas Obscura. The temple at Tenshou-Kyousha has a mermaid mummy purported to be over 1,400 years old. The mermaid was once a fisherman, and according to local mythology, he was transformed into a beast because he deigned to fish in protected waters. The punishment made the mermaid see the error of its ways and it asked a prince to display its remains to serve as a lesson—and a warning—to others.

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