fb pixel

Amabie: An Accidental Creature of Covid-19

The beginning of summer in Kyoto is a time of preparation for the Gion Matsuri, a festival over 1,100 years old showcasing hundreds of extravagant floats.  City shrines erect large wreathes made from reeds as part of Nagoshi no harae, a Summer Purification ceremony where people circle through the wreathes to rid themselves of impurities incurred from the first half of the year. In early July, priests of Kyoto’s Yasaka Shrine begin an annual tradition, one that dates back to 869 CE, of chanting prayers to ward off pestilence and to ensure a bountiful autumn harvest.  In mid-July, the Gion Festival is in full mode with thousands watching the procession of floats along the city’s boulevards. 

This year, as Covid-19 spread through Japan, Kyoto saw drastic changes for these time-honored traditions.  In March the Gion procession was cancelled for the first time in 58 years.[1]  The summer wreathes became spring wreathes, as intendants from Yasaka and other prominent Kyoto shrines began the sanctification rituals in late March.  And the prayers the Shinto priests would normally offer before the July festival were delivered months ahead of time.  These sacred safeguards would offer immediate comfort, but soon after the 2020 Tokyo Olympiad was postponed, the infections and deaths increased exponentially.

Out of the space separating the sacred and secular emerged the Amabie, a creature that, until now, rarely appeared in Japan’s massive menagerie of monsters and other mythical beasts.  It quickly became a ubiquitous symbol of resilience to the pandemic across Japan, as its depiction has been reproduced through drawings, sculptures, digital art, origami, stuffed animals, and even snacks.Stuffed amabie

Where did this formerly obscure Amabie come from, and how did it achieve its fame today?  The answers to these questions are more complex than what has been previously published online in English.[2]  In this essay, I will pinpoint the accidental birth of the Amabie and contextualize the period in which it appeared.  Then I will detail how it vanished during Japan’s drive for modernization, only to resurface in late twentieth century Manga and Anime.  Finally, I will explain how the Amabie is an important symbol during Japan’s age of resilience.

Amabie’s Accidental Origins

The Amabie was seen only once, in the middle of the fourth month of 1846.[3]  A local official stationed in Kyushu’s Higo Province (now Kumamoto Prefecture) was dispatched to the coast in order to investigate a series of mysterious lights that had been flashing in the offing.  As he approached the shore, a strange creature with long hair, a beak for a nose, and scales covering its body emerged from the water on three legs, introduced itself, and delivered a prophesy:

I am the one who dwells in the sea, a being called Amabie.  In the span of six years from this very date, the harvests shall be abundant all across the land.  However, should pestilence spread, sketch my image at once and set it on display for all to see.

The creature then retreated back into the waters, and the official returned to his post to relay the results of his investigation.  The matter was subsequently reported in provincial kawaraban, an early modern Japanese popular type of newsprint.  Along with the description of the encounter, the article contained an illustration of the creature—an illustration that would become the template for virtually all Amabie renditions through the present day.Amabie illustration

And yet, there never was an Amabie—real, imagined, or otherwise.

Allow me to explain. Three years before the Amabie sighting, another creature appeared in Higo with a remarkably similar tale.  Instead of lights seen from the seas, shrieks were heard from the mountains.  When a samurai official named Shibata Gozoemon set out to investigate that summer of 1843, he encountered a three-legged creature covered in fur but with a human face, an appearance that befitted a mountain habitat more than an oceanic one.   The creature foretold a five-year span of bumper crops, but also a prolonged pandemic that would kill thousands across the land.  It then insisted that disaster could be averted if its image was posted for all to see.  Although the creature didn’t offer a name, it bore resemblance to a Yamawara mountain spirit seen nearby.

Various illustrations of Amabie.A year later in Echigo, a distant coastal province in north-central Japan, another three-legged creature would appear from the ocean and deliver a prophesy that in the coming years, seventy percent of Japan would die.  The only way to prevent this, of course, was to replicate its image and show it to others.  Its profile was dutifully drawn in the local kawaraban.  Its head was described as resembling that of a priest, with human-like ears, round eyes, lips, and teeth, but that was where the resemblance to a person ended.  The creature lacked a torso, and instead had three clawed legs growing downward from the head, the entire being covered in short dark fur.  This time, the newsprint did give the creature a name: Amabiko.

Back in Higo, an additional beast was spotted in the mountains, in no mere coincidence by a samurai named Shibata Gozoemon.[4]  Its prophesy was the same: six years of abundant harvests with death from pestilence.  Its appearance was slightly different: a sloth-like creature with a masculine face and three or possibly four short clawed legs.  The text surrounding the depiction describes the features in more detail than the previous accounts did, and it also labels the creature as an Amabiko.

An avian creature with a body covered in feathers, an outstretched wing, and nine bird-like legs that stood amongst the waves.Just to the south of Higo in Hyūga Province’s Irino Bay,[5] another samurai with the now-familiar surname of Shibata came across a creature that foretold six years of bountiful harvests with a concurrent pandemic.  Again, one could ward off disaster by drawing the creature’s image and keeping it on display day and night.  Shibata of Hyūga called the creature an Amabiko Nyūdō or Amabiko the Tonsured, as its head resembled that of a bald Buddhist priest.  The rest of the creature appeared to be avian with a body covered in feathers, an outstretched wing, and nine bird-like legs that stood amongst the waves.

Several additional Amabiko images exist, but those are largely crude designs of either a mammalian or avian being with an odd number of legs.  Just as there is no consistent rendering of the Amabiko’s image, there is also no consistent orthographic rendering of its name. This is not unusual given the limited phonemes and vast homophones in the Japanese language.  As such, any number of characters could spell the same name, and Amabiko was no exception: 天彦, 海彦, 山彦, 天日子尊, あま彦, 阿磨比古, 尼彦, 尼彦入道.

These characters that spell Amabiko, as with all written Japanese, originally derived from Chinese.  “Ama” is signified by the ideograph for heaven, .  “Biko” originally was written as , or a Chinese medium.  Yet by nineteenth century Japan, Biko was more commonly written with the character , or a venerated son.[6]  Used together, 天彦 would denote a glorified messenger of the heavens, something suitable for one that delivers a prophesy.[7]  Ama is also an uncommon reading of the characters for sea and mountain, or and respectively.  Thus, when the creature emerges from the waters, Amabiko is written as a messenger of the sea.  When it descends from the peaks, it is written as a messenger of the mountains.   Amabiko could also take on a more sacred and arguably more feminine identity when the characters and 阿魔 are used to spell its name, as each represents a Buddhist nun (Ama) in Japanese.

Illustration of a dog-monkey hybrid creature.One may think it is peculiar that Amabiko’s etymology spells out a worldly name for an altogether otherworldly being.  However, it is Amabiko’s phonological similarity with another creature, the Yamabiko, that imbues the name with a supernatural quality.  Yamabiko initially was written as a ghostly echo of the valley (幽谷響), and it was depicted as a dog-monkey hybrid that responded to those who shouted out in the mountains.[8]  Yamabiko later assumed the more human form of a feral boy who lived and yelped in the mountains, and its spelling was simplified to 山彦.  One could draw the conclusion it is through this particular association that the Amabiko—a creature of differing visual and written renderings— became a distinct species among Japan’s supernatural entities.

Japanese script.Now that we have pieced together the orthographic and mythical origins of Amabiko, we should turn to that elusive Amabie.  Both names are obviously similar, only distinguished by the final syllable or mora: E vs. KO.  In order to reconcile this, we should once more turn to the sole recorded Amabie encounter.  Here, instead of using ideographs as seen above for Amabiko, the kawaraban newsprint writes Amabie phonetically using four letters from Japanese script: アマビヱ.[9]   Now, consider the phonetic spelling of Amabiko: アマビコ.  The difference between last characters of and is slight, with only a minor flourish separating the two.  The Amabie clearly is the same as an Amabiko, its name and breed simply borne from a printing error—a misprint in the newsprint.

The Rash of Amabiko/Amabie Sightings in the 1840s

The 1840s was neither the first nor only time mysterious creatures were sighted in Japan. Accounts of such beings date back to the earliest extant book in Japan, the Kojiki or “Records of Ancient Matters.” The editors of this chronicle included demons, goblins, and other supernatural beings to explicate the unexplained.  Then, yōkai and yūrei (monsters and ghosts) have appeared in fictional literature from the Tale of Genji to medieval warrior epics.  From the early modern period onward, booksellers published and sold a multitude of bestiaries and picture scrolls illustrating all kinds of creatures and beings. So why would encounters with Amabiko be confined mostly to the 1840s?

Illustration of the riot in Osaka. The decade was a relatively calm one, but it was also a lull between two tempests in Japanese history: a realm-wide famine from 1833 to 1837 and the final years of the Shogun’s reign (1853-1868).  The famine was induced by alternating periods of droughts and floods, both of which wiped out crop yields and sent the cost of rice skyrocketing.  Because rice was the bedrock for Japan’s economy, each stratum of life was affected, from the those who toiled the land to those who ruled it.[10]  As the famine neared its end, however, social unrest only intensified.  Uprisings that targeted those who appeared to be prospering—merchants, moneylenders, and high-ranked officials—peaked in early 1837 with a riot in Osaka that destroyed nearly one-fifth of the city.[11]

The Shogunate soon enacted a series of financial and sumptuary reforms to counteract the economic and social crises, but while the measures were effective in stabilizing the economy, they were unsuccessful in suppressing illicit movements.  Merchants would dive into the black market, and samurai would seek out forbidden knowledge of the outside world. Violent peasant uprisings would continue but eventually give way to other modes of peaceful protest whenever villagers believed local officials governed without benevolence.

The conditions were indeed ripe for a new creature to surface from the coasts or descend from the mountains in Japan’s periphery.  The Amabiko served as a cautious reminder of the horrors from the past decade, that even during a span of bountiful harvests, disaster could strike.  It also served as a means for the masses to express their concerns—there was no need to resort to destruction when one only had to sketch an Amabiko to ward off disease and disaster.

An illustration of a creature with the body of a bovine and the head of a human.The Amabiko was not the only new beast to emerge in the 1840s. In fact, it was one of many that noted ethnographer Yumoto Kōichi categorized as yogenjū (予言獣) or beasts of prophesy.  Although encounters with creatures like sea serpents, goblins, and demons before the 1800s were considered ominous, there were no records of specific prophesies delivered by any of them. The yogenjū’s raison d'être, however, was precisely to offer such revelations.  Also, like the Amabiko, other yogenjū presented themselves as human-animal hybrids.  Mermaids, for instance, visited coastal shrines and foretold diseases associated with cosmic phenomena.  A turtle with a human head, a hōnengame (豊年亀), instructed those who saw it to design a talisman with its figure to ward off illness.  Then there were kudan (件), beings with the body of a bovine and the head of a human, which also warned of pandemics that could only be prevented if one draws and circulates a kudan image.

Finally, the 1840s witnessed a brief increase in leisure-related consumerism, and merchants capitalized on the rash of yogenjū encounters.  Depictions of Amabiko and other yogenjū were not just hand drawn; they were also mass produced as inserts in the kawaraban newsprints.  In the piece describing the sloth-like Amabiko, for instance, one can identify a small strip of paper with the word ningen (人間) that covers the word shikashi (然し) at the top of the eighth line from the right.[12]   Because shikashi appears at the top of the next line as well, the correction spotlights a duplication error, thereby indicating that this account is but one of many copies rather than the original text.

Merchants not only hawked illustrations of yogenjū to shops and publishers, but they also fabricated and sold yogenjū skeletons and mummies.  Such remains generally found their way to early modern Japanese circuses and sideshows called misemono (見世物 or literally Spectacle).  Just as P.T. Barnum had done with Fiji Mermaids, merchants had cobbled together parts of different animals to market corpses of turtle, fish, or cattle hybrids.  Bodies of Amabiko, though, never appeared in early modern or modern misemono, and their images and stories became relegated to kawaraban archives.

Meiji, Modernity, and Monsters

Japan faced another existential threat after the calm of the 1840s, but this one was not induced by natural disasters or viral pandemics.  Instead, it was triggered by the Shogun’s decision to open Japan to Western trade in 1853, a catalyst that converted xenophobic and nationalistic thought into action.  Calling on the government to expel the Western barbarians and venerate the Emperor, samurai from Japan’s southern domains marched to Kyoto in 1868 and, in a relatively bloodless coup of sorts, overthrew the Shogun and restored the Emperor to power.[13]

As the Meiji Period began, the anti-foreigner chants of the previous era were discarded in favor of slogans that embraced the acquisition of Western political and military knowledge.  Ghosts, monsters, and other mythical beasts were all but wiped out by this wave of modernity.  The Japanese government also sought to reform religion by consolidating localized folk beliefs into Institutional Shinto and by forming bureaus to oversee Buddhist Temples.  A byproduct of the secular rush to modernity, religion itself became a means for the masses to rally around the Emperor and the nation.  Japan’s rapid push to modernization culminated in victorious military campaigns against China and Russia in the early 1900s, and the country settled into an age of imperialism.

To elevate itself vis-à-vis its Asian neighbors, Japan started to construct bridges into the past, famously linking twentieth century militarism with a premodern Bushido ethos.  But also making its way across was a parade of Japan’s demons, mythical creatures, and monsters.  This posed a conundrum for academics and ethnographers: were these beings to be disposed of in an enlightened era, or were they too to be used as an emblem of Japan’s soul? Nowhere was this schism clearer than in the work of Inoue Enryō (1858-1919) and Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962).  Inoue was the first scholar to treat Japan’s history of mysterious beings as a serious subject, yet he eventually dismissed them as a creation of uneducated folk who lacked the faculty to explicate the unknown.  Yanagita, on the other hand, devoted himself to folklore studies and considered the creatures and those who believed in their existence to be critical for understanding the values of traditional Japan.[14]

Needless to say, the Amabiko survived Japan’s modernization.  Unlike other yogenjū, though, there were no further recorded encounters of an Amabiko in the wild.[15]  Rather, they were occasionally found in newspapers like the Tokyo Daily (Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun) and the Postal Times (Yūbin Hōchi Shimbun). Two notable appearances in print coincided with a cholera outbreak in 1882 and the eve of the First World War in 1914, complete with ready-made Amabiko inserts to be posted in one’s home.  Perhaps due to its highly specialized role, the Amabiko never appeared in encyclopedias of monsters and other supernatural beings. However, the Amabie did.

Amabie Lives and Let Lives

Famed artist Mizuki Shigeru started a manga series in the 1960s called Gegege no Kitarō, an episodic story that centered on a boy named Kitarō, the last of the Ghost tribe.  The manga chronicled Kitarō’s encounters both with yōkai from Japan and with monsters from across the world, but Kitarō never came across an Amabie in the original series.  Mizuki did, however, include a description and drawing of the creature in his 1984 work Nihon yōkai taisen or the Great Compendium of Japanese Yōkai.  Later in 2007, the Amabie would make its anime debut in a televised adaptation of Gegege no Kitarō.[16]

Mizuki died in 2015, but his company “Mizuki Productions” continued to adapt, license, and market his creations.   On March 17, 2020, the company’s social media account tweeted a photograph of Mizuki’s Amabie illustration, along the following message:

Mizuki’s Amabie illustration.This is an “Amabie.” We took a photo of Mizuki Shigeru’s original drawing. It’s a being…closer in nature to a divine entity than a Yōkai.  In the Edo Period, it appeared in the sea off of Kumamoto and instructed, “If pestilence spreads, draw my image and quickly show it to everyone.”  With that, its figure disappeared back into the sea. May it rid us of the current pandemic.[17]

The tweet went…viral…with nearly 100,000 retweets and 200,000 likes to date.  Hundreds of replies included other images of the Amabie, from hand-drawn sketches to frames of Mizuki’s anime to statues along Kyushu’s coast.  Within weeks of the tweet, Amabie spread throughout Japan and, soon afterward, into the rest of the world.  Etsy entrepreneurs as well as corporate retailers like Uniqlo designed clothing, face masks, key chains, stuffed animals, and original artwork all bearing the Amabie’s image.  Of course, several others heeded the creature’s warning and drew or otherwise constructed their own Amabie to share it over social media.

The Amabie is the most prominent among its cohort of nineteenth century yogenjū, but not because of its prophetic prowess.  Nor because of the relative ease in drawing its picture.  Rather, I would argue that it earned its fame from the cultural capital of Kawaii.  That is, a quotient of cuteness using schoolgirls as a barometer to determine what is in vogue.  Sanrio understood this in 1975 when its coin purses adorned with a cat sitting under the word “hello” outsold all of its other purses combined.[18]  Nintendo understood this when girls were playing Pokémon games in numbers greater than boys. And Mizuki Shigeru understood this when he redrew what were once fearsome and androgynous beings into beguiling and often feminine beings for his 1984 compendium.

An Amabie, in its traditional and contemporary depictions, is far more charming than the other Beasts of Prophesy.  A human head crowning from beneath a cow’s tail—a kudan—would likely elicit cries of disgust, not cries of “Kawaii!”  The image of a traditional Japanese mermaid, a woman’s head on a limbless, slithering scaled body, would not fare much better.  Nor would the hōnengame turtle-human hybrid.  An upright, tripedal being with long hair, diamond eyes, and a short beak, though, was virtually designed for the market.

Final Thoughts: Amabie in an Age of Resilience

The Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011 ushered in a new era for Japan: an era of resilience.  Skeptical of official reports and efforts from the government, civilians in the afflicted regions organized associations to locate missing family and friends, measure radiation levels in their neighborhoods, and devise new evacuation routes in the event of future calamities.  Similar groups appeared in the aftermath of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes. In 2018, the public institutions governing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics even catered to local outcries by moving strenuous outdoor events far away from the summer heat of the capital.[19]

Japan’s official tally of Covid-19 cases, at the time the virus began to spread outside of China in early 2020, was low compared to that of its East Asian neighbors.   The government touted its rapid response in enacting measures to ensure social distancing, reinforce thorough handwashing, and restrict both domestic and international travel.  Yet, the numbers began to climb almost immediately after the Olympics were postponed, with a series of spikes trending into the summer.  Japan’s citizens understandably expressed their misgivings of the government’s reports and responses, with particular criticism aimed at its inconsistency in opening and closing public schools and at its botched distribution of face masks.[20]

Stop COVD-19 sign. Thus, in the absence of government transparency, failsafe strategies to treat and stave off the virus, and a tested vaccine, resilience would once again characterize public efforts to maintain safety.  And what better symbol of local resilience than the Amabie, a creature which appeared only once, over 170 years ago, in a distant corner of the Shogun’s realm, to relay a simple piece of advice from the cosmos: draw my image to end the pandemic.



[1] In 1962, Kyoto was revitalizing its infrastructure by installing subways, making the procession impossible.

[2] Published articles include: Smithsonian Magazine (March 27, 2020), New Yorker (April 9, 2020), and NPR (April 22, 2020)

[3] Before the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Japan followed a lunisolar calendar, and therefore numbered months are used in lieu of their Western equivalents (e.g. “fourth month” instead of “April”).

[4] Shibata (literally brushy rice field) was and still is a rather common Japanese surname, but it’s hard to ignore the association between the name and sightings of Amabiko.

[5] Now Miyazaki Prefecture in southern Kyushu.

[6] See Wikipedia for an extensive entry behind the etymology of the character .  A deeper dive reveals that “hiko” has become attached to a number of boys’ names in Japan: Kazuhiko, Takehiko, Akihiko. 

[7]天日子尊, Amabiko no Mikoto, is a more literal rendition for the venerable child of the heaven and sun 天日.

[8] Michael Dylan Foster asserts in The Book of Yōkai that the Yamabiko has a chicken-or-the-egg association with echoes in Japan (128).

[9] The final character, , is an obsolete reading of “E,” but it was commonly used in the nineteenth century.  Beer enthusiasts today might recognize it from Yebisu bottles as ヱビス.

[10] For example, the farmers paid a calculated land-tax based on their annual yield, and that revenue helped pay samurai stipends.

[11] Osaka, the so-called Merchant Capital of Tokugawa Japan, was the target of two-day attack led by a samurai detective turned Neo-Confucian firebrand named Ōshio Heihachirō.

[12] Lines of vertical text in East Asia are generally read from right to left.

[13] Even though the Shogun ceded control of the county to the Emperor, the Emperor was only the nominal leader, with the lower samurai who rebelled forming the core oligarchs who would steer Japan’s drive to modernize.

[14] Yanagita edited tales of mysterious creatures into a number of his studies, and he circulated calls to the public for more unfamiliar legends.

[15] Photographs were even taken of kudan corpses, although those were mostly of stillborn calves with hairless faces or other deformities.

[16] The Amabie that appears in the compendium resembles the newsprint version from the 1840s, but the animated Amabie resembles more of a mermaid.

[17] https://twitter.com/mizukipro/status/1239818518536704001

[18] See Matt Alt’s 2020 Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World for a more detailed origin of the Hello Kitty phenomenon.

[19] The marathon, for example, was scheduled to take place 516 miles north of Tokyo in Sapporo.

[20] Although facemasks are a common sight across East Asia in non-pandemic times, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō instituted a mask distribution program that sent each household 2 masks.  Delayed shipments and exasperation for families of 3 or more led to the pejorative term of Abenomask, which itself is a takeoff of Abenomics.


Further Readings on Japanese Monsters:  

(In English)

  • Figal, Gerald. Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Foster, Michael Dylan. The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015.
  • Komatsu Kazuhiko. An Introduction to Yōkai Culture: Monsters, Ghosts, and Outsiders in Japanese History. Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, trans. Tokyo: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture, 2017.

(in Japanese)

  • Miura Setsuo. Nihonjin ha naze yōkai wo osorerunoka: Inoue Enryō no “Yōkaigaku kōza” (Why Japanese People Fear Yōkai: Inoue Enryō’s “Lectures on the Study of Yōkai”). Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu Ōraisha, 2001.
  • Takayama Muneharu. Kaidan no unchiku 101: “Ōedo okaruto jijō no kiso chishiki” (Accumulated Wisdom 101 from Tales of Mystery: Basic Knowledge from Edo’s Occult Scene). Tokyo: Gakken Publishing, 2013.
  • Yumoto Kōichi. Nihon no genjū zufu: Ōedo fushigi seibutsu shutsugen roku (An Illustrated Catalog of Japanese Cryptids: A Record of Appearances of Edo’s Mysterious Creatures). Tokyo: Tokyo Bijutsu, 2016.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Newmark is Associate Professor of Japanese Culture and Language as well as the Coordinator of the East Asian Languages and Culture’s (EALC) Program.  His Winter 2021 Seminar on Japanese Pop Culture will feature a module on monsters and creatures like the Amabie, which hopefully will be more of a relic and less of a talisman by then. 

You can reach him at j.newmark@uwinnipeg.ca for further information on the article or the EALC Program.