Amabie, the cute way Japan is fighting COVID

Yokai are “monsters” of Japanese Folklore. Though previously considered scary, many are now regarded as cute and friendly, and often benevolent. They take many forms and are seen as a way of processing difficult feelings and unpleasant situations. Superstition is not uncommon in Japan and many believe there is a thin veil between this world and the next.

Amabie are a type of yokai which have not been very popular in recent times, but have made a rockstar comeback with the emergence of COVID.

Amabie first appeared in 1846, with a “historical sighting” in Higo Province (current day Kumamoto Prefecture). A mythological mermaid or merman with a bird-like beak, long hair, scales from the neck down and three tail-fin like legs. Amabie are said to prophesy abundant harvest or an epidemic. During the sighting, where the people retrieved a town official who took down this account, the amabie said, “good harvest will continue for 6 years. If disease spreads, draw a picture of me and show the picture to all who fall ill”. This was printed in the kawaraban, or woodblock printed bulletins, of the day.

When COVID started spreading around the world, the Japanese responded to the fear in a culturally fitting manner. They have put amabie on everything. Amabie started trending on social media, in memes and as a pop culture mascot. People were making amabie cookies, udon, candy and bento boxes. One of my favourite sake breweries, Miyoshikiku Shuzo, brewed an amabie Tokubetsu Junmai sake. Amabie was on t-shirts, train station posters, face masks, hand sanitisers. Stickers of amabie were even placed on vials of vaccinations in Japan, and the creature features in the contact tracing app. Amabie became charms in gachapon (capsule toys) as well as smartphone wallpapers. These yokai have enjoyed an unprecedented resurgence in popularity. Hopefully, they will soon be triumphant over this pandemic.

You can read a previous blog I wrote about yokai, and other creatures, here.

Photo credits:

“amabie” by mionekoyama is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Amabie mochi)

“Amabie candy in Sugamo Jizo Dori Shopping Street”by Real Estate Japan Photos is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Amabie candy)

“Amabie Wind Chimes – Satake Shotengai in Taito Ward”by Real Estate Japan Photos is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Amabie wind chimes)

“File:Sanma with Amabie in Atre Meguro 01.jpg” by 番記者 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Amabie window design, department store)

“File:Handwriting illustration of Amabie by JR Yokohama Station staff 06.jpg” by ジョジョの珍妙な冒険 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Amabie train station posters)

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