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Regarding your April 2 story “Japanese monster goes viral on hopes for end to coronavirus pandemic,” permit me to indulge in conjecture. Despite the media attention the amabie mythical creature has been garnering over the last few weeks (The Guardian and The New Yorker have also run stories on this supernatural monster), I’m surprised no one has yet noticed the eerie resemblance the beaked amabie has to the beak-like masks plague doctors in Europe wore in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In times of epidemics, plague doctors were medical professionals hired by disease-stricken towns to combat bubonic outbreaks. Their hazmat-like protective gear, first invented in Naples around 1620, consisted of a head-to-toe waxed fabric overcoat, a mask with crystal eye openings and a beak shaped nose, typically stuffed with herbs, straw and spices.

Cloaked in this bizarre uniform, plague doctors treated patients who had come down with plague-like symptoms, often dispensing dubious treatments like bloodletting. Over time, their beaked mask came to be associated not only with the bubonic plague but also with the Carnival of Venice, which incorporated this symbol of mortality into the annual celebration of life.

Is it mere coincidence that the amabie also has a beaked, avian visage? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the amabie legend doesn’t have some basis in fact. Her appearance in mid-19th century Japan (rising from the ocean to ward off epidemics) more or less coincides with the growing presence of European traders in Japan, many eager to share their Western medical knowledge. Could images of European plague doctors have circulated in Japan at that time? I think it’s quite likely. In any event, the a—mabie is a cute, if grim, reminder of how routine, how brutally ordinary, deadly epidemics used to be.

Takeshi Arthur Thornton
Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

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