An obscure, mythical mermaid-like being believed to prophesize harvests and epidemics became an unlikely symbol of national unity this year in the face of COVID-19.

Known as amabie and depicted as having long hair, a beak, three legs and scales from the neck down, the kai — supernatural monsters and apparitions popularized through Japanese legends and folklore — inundated social media with its likeness and has been featured on countless items of merchandise and advertisements, even being adopted as a mascot for the health ministry’s public safety campaign.

The name of the duck-billed creature was among 30 terms nominated as buzzword of the year for 2020, alongside other candidates including “Abenomask,” former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s universally distributed washable face masks, and “Kimetsu no Yaiba,” the manga series known as “Demon Slayer” in English, which was recently turned into a blockbuster animated film that has become the second highest grossing film in Japan.

On Tuesday, publishing house Jiyukokuminsha announced that the winner was “sanmitsu” (meaning “the three Cs” — avoiding closed spaces, crowds and close contact situations).

“I don’t think there has ever been a yōkai, especially one as arcane as amabie, that has permeated popular culture to this extent,” said Eishun Nagano, a director at the Fukui Prefectural Archives in Fukui Prefecture and one of the leading experts on amabie and its likely variant, amabiko.

“And what’s fascinating is how the image of amabie as a monster capable of repelling plagues was largely created by the media — there are no direct references to the creature having such powers in the original source material,” he says.

The only documented record of amabie is a kawaraban, or woodblock-printed news sheet from the late Edo Period (1603-1868), preserved at the Kyoto University Library. The print, from 1846, describes an official being sent to investigate rumors of an unidentified, glowing object appearing every night in the sea off the province of Higo in modern day Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan.

Upon arrival, a creature emerged and introduced itself as an amabie, saying there would be plentiful harvests for six years, but that disease would also spread. Before disappearing back into the waters, the monster urged the official to swiftly draw a picture of it and show it to other people, without elaborating.

A variety of goods bearing amabie designs, such as decorative wind chimes, have been produced in Japan in recent months. | KYODO
A variety of goods bearing amabie designs, such as decorative wind chimes, have been produced in Japan in recent months. | KYODO

Nagano said amabie was likely a misspelling of amabiko, a yōkai of similar characteristics that follows a nearly identical storyline. It is said to offer prophecies of abundant harvests and epidemics, and prescribes the drawing of its likeness to defend against sickness. But perhaps due to the rather cutesy illustration that accompanied the kawaraban article, the amabie became more popular than its hairy counterpart.

Starting around late February, countless netizens began posting drawings, sculptures, cosplay photos and other interpretations of amabie on social media under various hashtags including #amabiechallenge. The health ministry has promoted the monster to raise awareness of the dangers of the pandemic, while the creature has been featured on merchandise including craft beer, snacks, accessories, amulets and apparel.

“The economic impact of the boom is difficult to calculate,” said Mayuko Kono, Chief Research Officer at JTB Tourism Research & Consulting Co. Various products flooded the market immediately after the monster went viral, perhaps because it is based on an old image that is not trademarked, she said.

Still, companies soon began filing applications to register trademarks related to the apparition. Advertising giant Dentsu Inc. retracted its own application in July after facing fierce online backlash, but according to the National Center for Industrial Property Information and Training’s patent database, J-PlatPat, there are still 17 applications currently under review or pending review by companies ranging from confectionery-makers to a religious corporation.

Amabie have made their presence known this year by adorning face masks, with wearers hoping the creatures will ward off the coronavirus. | KYODO
Amabie have made their presence known this year by adorning face masks, with wearers hoping the creatures will ward off the coronavirus. | KYODO

Kono said the monster’s rather charming appearance struck a chord, allowing it to be interpreted in multiple designs for multiple purposes roughly based on the original image.

“I believe amabie reflects the people’s desire to offer positivity in the face of an invisible threat,” Kono said. “It was elevated to the status of an emblem or symbol uniting Japan in the fight against COVID-19.”

From influenza and dysentery to smallpox and measles, Japan has been hit by numerous epidemics over the course of its history. And each time calamity struck, religion and folk beliefs offered comfort and remedies. This time, hope came in the form of a long-locked, beak-nosed creature from the past.

“I think amabie will retain its status until the pandemic subsides,” Kono says. “And who knows, it could resurface in the future when humanity faces another plague.”

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