Amid Pandemic, Artists Invoke Japanese Spirit Said to Protect Against Disease

Illustrators are sharing artwork of Amabie, a spirit first popularized during the Edo period, on social media

According to traditional Japanese folklore, Amabie predicts good harvests and protect against disease. Courtesy of Kyoto University

A long-haired merperson with three scaly tails and a beak might not seem like someone you’d want in your corner, but there’s a good reason this mythological creature is gaining traction online.

The character, known as Amabie, is one of the yōkai—a class of spirits first popularized in Japanese folklore during the Edo period. According to legend, seeing and distributing Amabie’s image can keep infectious disease away. It stands to reason, then, that artists around the world are now sharing their interpretations of the classic creature on social media.

Artist Shigeru Mizuki, who died in 2015, was a master of the yōkai genre. Last week, the group in charge of his work contributed a depiction of Amabie to the growing Twitter trend; a museum dedicated to Mizuki’s work has also received an unusual number of requests about the spirit amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s so surprising that we’re getting feedback from not just young people but also the elderly,” Yukio Shoji, the museum’s director, tells the Mainichi Shimbun. “It may have to do with its shiny, sparkly looks.”

Other illustrators have given the traditional spirit new life, too, sharing its image as sculptures, latte art and costumes, among other creative offerings. One artist created Amabie keychains that sold out among local businesses experiencing a decline in customers due to COVID-19, according to the Asashi Shimbun.

The movement reflects “a similar mindset to that held by people in the Edo era,” Chief Librarian Eishun Nagano of the Fukui Prefectural Archives tells Japanese news agency Jiji Press.

Spanning the 17th through 19th centuries, the Edo period marked the final era of traditional Japan, when the nation was ruled by a military dictatorship called the shogunate.

The shogunate restricted mass publishing for the public, but news of major events and natural disasters, as well as supernatural stories, still managed to spread through illicit one-page prints called kawaraban. Yōkai sightings first entered folklore during this period and have been a mainstay of Japanese popular culture ever since. Some of the more well-known yōkai include Kappa, a tricky turtle-like water spirit, and Oni, a horned troll. These spirits frequently feature in Japanese television shows and video games.

Amabie, first documented in kawaraban, is a more benevolent spirit. According to popular lore, the creature appeared off the coast of southwestern Japan and predicted the future to a passerby. Six years of good harvest were on the way, Amabie said, but a plague was coming, too. The spirit instructed the passerby to share drawings of it to keep the disease at bay, and thus the image of Amabie spread.

“It’s likely that [the trend] was a reaction to the sudden disruption of the daily routine,” Matthew Meyer, an artist and yōkai expert, tells Atlas Obscura’s Claire Voon in an email. “These yokai appeared during the period when Japan’s isolationist policy was forcefully ended by U.S. warships. While the increase in trade brought lots of ideas and inventions to Japan, it also brought brand new diseases, such as cholera.”

Amabie may be a local variation of a similar creature named Amabiko, which also predicts good harvests followed by periods of disaster. But other depictions of Amabiko show a three-legged monkey rather than a beaked fish-person.

“In accounts of Amabiko, it is sometimes said that the image itself can ward off the epidemic,” says Jack Stoneman, an expert on Asian and near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University, to Atlas Obscura. “This is not unusual in Japanese cultural history—images as talismans.”

Amabie began appearing on social media en masse when Japan announced school closures. With the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics, feelings of disruption and uncertainty continue.

“I drew this Amabie with the intention to remind others to stay calm and never lose hope at times when we feel like giving up,” writes Ceruzen Lee, an artist from the Philippines who shared an illustration of Amabie online, in an email to Atlas Obscura. “It was truly inspiring to find out that many other artists still remain optimistic despite the events in our world today.”

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