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Spirit from Japanese folklore becomes new social media sensation as people draw image to ward off coronavirus

Amabie, a yokai, is said to have appeared in the 1800s to prophesize a bountiful harvest. She also said that invoking her by drawing a picture of her and showing it to everyone could evade plagues
UPDATED MAR 26, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Self-isolation and social distancing have people confined to the comfort of their homes and battling all sorts of boredom. Social media has seen a hike in average data consumption and the number of internet users has drastically increased to the point that even streaming platforms have announced that they will be reducing streaming quality and data traffic.

The point is that the world is coping with being indoors in various entertaining ways. While Italians have taken to singing from their balconies, Americans are trying to revive the Christmas spirit (in March) and spread cheer by hanging up lights.  In Asia, however, Japan is keeping itself occupied creatively while also attempting to ward off the coronavirus epidemic. The country has reported a total of 1,307 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 45 fatalities as of March 26.

In the thick of hard-hitting coronavirus news and various other posts concerning the pandemic surfacing on every social media feed, an illustration of a strange-looking creature believed to be part of Japanese folklore has made an appearance. A large population of artists is taking to social media to post their versions of a mythological creature called 'Amabie' that in popular Japanese culture is believed to be an averter of epidemics. It is an earnest attempt at offering hope to the masses worldwide that this deadly virus that has befallen us will not persist for long.

A Japanese Yokai

Amabie, the mermaid that foretold a plague from kawaraban, newspapers of the Edo era (Wikimedia Commons)

Yokai is a term for a class of supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore that are often perceived as mischievous and malevolent, but also bring fortune to those that encounter them. Their features vary from being animalist to human-like, or sometimes they are inanimate objects with supernatural powers, like shape-shifting. 

Amabie is believed to be one such yokai. Legend has it that a strange creature appeared in the Higo Province of the Kumamoto Prefecture in mid-May 1846 during the Edo era. When locals claimed to see a glowing orb in the sea regularly at night time, the town's official set out to investigate and encountered the Amabie. She predicted bountiful harvests in the near future and also passed on advice about facing an epidemic before disappearing into the sea.

In popular culture

The story is widely disseminated as a popular folklore today after a portrait of her likeness was printed in the 'Kawaraban' (woodblock-printed bulletins) right after she appeared to the official. The bulletin also featured a prophecy as delivered by her: "Good harvest will continue for six years if disease spreads show a picture of me to those who fall ill and they will be cured."

Records also claim that the yokai professed, "If an epidemic occurs, draw a picture of me and show it to everyone".

The meaning of 'Amabie' is uncertain and most believe that her name could actually be 'Amabiko', because in Japanese, the letters ko (コ) and e (エ) are nearly interchangeably similar. 

Physical appearance

Amabie is a three-legged, bird-billed mermaid with long luscious hair and scales covering her body from the neck down. According to the legend, she emerged from the sea where she is said to live and assured that the Kumamoto Prefecture would witness six years of bountiful harvest. That is the first and last account of her sighting.

Similar Yokai

The apparition of Japan,尼彦 Amahiko (Wikimedia Commons)

Another yokai that is said to have identical characteristics to the Amabie is the 'Amahiko', a male version of the yokai,  which allegedly has also made appearances in the Higo Province. Furthermore, the 'Amahiko Nyūdo' of Hyuga Province (Miyazaki Prefecture) and 'Arie' of Higo Province also bear similarities with Amabie.

All three creatures shared the following characteristics: They emerged from the sea; prophesized good harvest and impending plagues and also said that showing a picture in their likeness can fend off disasters.

In a time, where the world is struggling to cope with an epidemic of this magnitude that has only resulted in mass devastation, the yokai stands as a beacon of hope amidst a cloud of hopelessness. The legend of Amabie recently spotlighted in Japan, when people found similarities between the current world scenario and the folklore. Its modern relevance then rapidly spread across social media, especially Twitter. Upon learning about Amabie, many internet users began creating their own artistic versions of the yokai and posted it online, in reverence to her prophecy.