By: Kathryn M. Tanaka, Associate Professor at the University of Hyogo and Amabie Fan1
Yurukyara, or “mascot characters,” have long been a part of Japan’s pop culture landscape. These characters are used extensively for marketing products and promoting initiatives in Japan; as Debra Occhi notes, they can “appear in two- or three- dimensional form as well as in media mix versions and countless products.”2 While they are most famous in association with specific localities or companies, yurukyara have also appeared in service of government health initiatives. There are yurukyara to promote blood donation (Kenketsu-chan), quarantine for health reasons (Kuaran), and masking (Korono).
As the novel coronavirus began to spread around the world, a new character appeared: Amabie. Amabie is a yōkai, a mythological creature in Japanese folklore. In this case, Amabie is a mermaid-esque creature, typically depicted with a fishtail with three fins, a beak, diamond-shaped eyes, fins for ears, and long hair. This depiction, and indeed, Amabie’s entire mythology, is based on a single archival source: a kawaraban, or a block printed broadsheet commonly used to report news in Japan between 1600 and roughly around 1870. The sheet is titled “Uncanny being from the Sea at Biko (Image of Amabie),” and the text reads:
“A glowing being appeared every night in the sea of Higo Province [today’s Kumamoto prefecture], so an official went to investigate, resulting in his discovery of a being like that in this drawing. “I live in the sea and I am called Amabie. This year’s good harvest will continue for six years, but at the same time disease will spread. Copy my image and show me to people as possible.” So saying, the being then she disappeared into the sea.
The middle of the fourth month, the year Kōka-3 (mid-May, 1846).”3
Given the lack of reference to Amabie’s appearance in other historical documents, the creature likely would have faded out of popular consciousness were it not for the work of one of Japan’s foremost yōkai experts and beloved manga and anime artists, Mizuki Shigeru (1922-2015). In part because of the appearance of the creature in Mizuki’s popular manga and television program, Ge ge ge no Kitaro, fans of Mizuki’s work have kept Amabie on the fringes of pop culture as a fairly well-known yōkai associated with premonition and illness.
In Mizuki’s later work, Amabie was also depicted with feminine attributes, with pastel coloring, and closer to a mermaid. Mizuki also brought her closer to a cute aesthetic often found in contemporary yurukyara. Thus, unlike these other prophetic monsters in Japanese folklore, Amabie became the target of global attention for three reasons: first, Amabie appeared specifically to fight pandemic illness; second, like a mermaid, Amabie is feminine, playful, and nonthreatening; and third, and perhaps most importantly, mostly due to Mizuki Shigeru’s work, Amabie was well-known to folklorists and Japanese artists who drew their inspiration from Japanese folklore.
Mizuki Shigeru’s fandom first evoked Amabie in reference to the novel coronavirus pandemic. A Mizuki Shigeru fan wrote, “Nezumi Otoko: ‘One hundred and fifty years ago, in the sea of Kumamoto prefecture, a creature who was half human and half fish called Amabie appeared. She apparently predicted that if illness spread, showing copies of her picture to people would cure it immediately. This is a creature I want to appear now, as the novel coronavirus is spreading…’”4 A second tweet, two minutes later by the same user shared Mizuki Shigeru’s original drawing of Amabie and wrote: “By the way, here’s Amabie’s appearance! If you see it, neither corona nor the flu will be scary!?”5
The first connection of Amabie to the COVID-19 pandemic, then, came from the Mizuki Shigeru and his best-known works featuring Amabie, a folklore encyclopedia (Image 5) and Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Image 6 and 7), fandom on Twitter.
Screen shots from Mizuki Shigeru’s Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Dai go ki). Used with permission from Toei Studios.7
Amabie exploded beyond Mizuki’s fandom on 27 February, when folklore artist Orochidō shared an updated image of Amabie and wrote: “A certain virus is spreading with unstoppable momentum, but a creature once said, ‘If an epidemic occurs, draw my image and show it to people as a preventative measure.’ It’s called Amabie.”8
From Orochidō’s initial tweet, other yōkai artists joined, with media around the globe picking up on the #Amabiechallenge. That and the #Amabie phenomenon spreading across social media as users around the world shared their own images of Amabie. Picking up on this grassroots popularity, the Ministry of Heath, Labor, and Welfare began using Amabie in a way similar to yurukyara: she appeared as a mascot on initiatives to raise awareness about COVID-19 prevention measures, such as masking, handwashing, and social distancing.
Local communities also began to use Amabie as a yurukyara to promote health initiatives; in the city of Nishinomiya between Osaka and Kobe in Western Japan, an image of Amabie drawn by manga artist and the creator of the city’s yurukyara, Takai Yoshikazu, was used to promote both COVID-19 prevention measures and vaccination.
As Amabie began to be used as a popular yurukyara creature associated with COVID-19 prevention, the image of cute creature continues to appear on health awareness initiatives and on commercial goods. In addition, however, use of Amabie in Japanese spiritual practices also began to spread in dialogue with these pop culture trends. One example of this is a small wooden prayer amulet, or ema tablet, sold by the popular tourist site, Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara. These ema tablets are ubiquitous at Shinto shrines, where visitors write their wishes or prayers on the back and leave them as messages to the kami, or Japanese deities. This particular ema tablet from Kasuga Grand Shrine was notable, however, in that it was an image of Amabie created by the designer of Pikachu, Nishida Atsuko, and done in her Pokémon art style. After the artist made an official offering of her work to the shrine, the ema were sold to the general public beginning in the fall of 2020.12 And while it is not exactly a Pokemon and Amabie crossover, many Pokemon fans visited the shrine to purchase an ema tablet and take it home.
In a signal of how quickly the Amabie fandom has spread across popular culture, and the many different fandoms her image is now a part of, the global leader of cute characters, Sanrio, has added a version of Amabie to the Hello Kitty character universe and marketed the character on a limited line of snack products. The packaging featured an Amabie form of both Hello Kitty and Sanrio’s fish character, Hangyodon.
In addition to being marketed by Sanrio, Amabie has also appeared as wagashi, or Japanese sweets (Image 11 and 12), and on the packaging of other popular snack food and beverages (Image 13 and 14). One craft beer company, SanktGallen Brewery, launched an Amabie IPA that features the creature drawn by manga artist Ishikawa Masayuki–an artist famous for a manga and subsequent anime about a college student studying agriculture who can see and communicate with bacteria, and the virus is depicted on the bottle with Amabie in his trademark style.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of Amabie in popular culture was buoyed by the widespread use of yurukyara, as well as the Mizuki Shigeru fandom and a talented group of yōkai artists who began and popularized the #Amabiechallenge. As the pandemic continues, however, Amabie has become a character with fandoms and commercial products in their own right, whose popularity as a character is likely to endure beyond the pandemic that gave birth to the Amabie Boom.
Kathryn M. Tanaka, associate professor at the University of Hyogo, is a Japanese literary scholar and Amabie fan who works on the intersections of medicine, literature, and culture. Her work focuses primarily on Hansen’s disease and modern Japanese literature in the early twentieth century, in particular writing by women and children. She has published numerous articles about Hansen’s disease and literature in Japan, and some translations. Currently, she is completing a book manuscript on the subject but is also distracted by her interest in Amabie and contemporary fiction about COVID-19. Her twitter handle is @KathrynTanaka18.
- This work is summarized from the book chapter by the author, “Amabie as Play in Kansai,” in: Beliefs, Ritual Practices, and Celebrations in Kansai II, ed. Carmen Sapunaru Tamas, Bucharest: Pro Universitaria, 2021: 182-227.
- Occhi, Debra J. “Yuru Kyara: Kumamon,” Japanese Media and Popular Culture: An Open-Access Digital Initiative of the University of Tokyo. Accessed 4 November 2021. https://jmpc-utokyo.com/keyword/yuru-kyara/.
- Translation adapted from Furukawa, Yuki and Rei Kansaku, “Amabie: A Japanese Symbol of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” JAMA 324(6) 17 July 2020: 531. Quoted in Tanaka 2021.
- Bi bi bi no shōgun (@Youkaidaihuku), Twitter post, January 30, 2020, 7:38 PM. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.
- Bi bi bi no shōgun (@Youkaidaihuku), Twitter post, January 30, 2020, 7:40 PM.
- Bi bi bi no shōgun (@Youkaidaihuku), Twitter post, January 30, 2020, 7:38 PM; Bi bi bi shogun (@Youkaidaihuku). Twitter post, January 30, 2020, 7:40 PM.
- Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Dai go saku) “Dai nijū roku wa: Yōkai aidoru?! Amabie” [Kitaro Ge ge ge! 5th series, season 1, episode 26: Yōkai pop star?! Amabie. Written by Sanjō Riku, directed by Kakudō Hiroyuki. Toei Animation. Original air date: September 30, 2007.
- Orochidō (@orochidou), Twitter post, February 27, 2020, 6:11 PM.
- Orochidō (@orochidou), Twitter post, February 27, 2020, 6:11 PM.
- Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare website. Available online: https://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/covid-19/kurashiyashigoto.html.
- “Shingata korona wakuchin no sesshu ni tsuite,” [On the vaccination shots for the novel corona virus]. Nishinomiya City Home Page. Available online: https://www.nishi.or.jp/smph/kurashi/anshin/infomation/vaccine.html.
- “Pikachu designer dedicates illustration of folklore character Amabie to west Japan shrine.” The Mainichi Shimbun. 11 October 2020. Available online: https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20201009/p2a/00m/0et/023000c