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Japan resurrects ‘Amabie’, an ancient supernatural creature, to fight COVID-19

what is 'amabie'?

“Huge new ‘amabie’ boom in Japan. But what are they, exactly? Screencap from an explainer video on popular ‘Omega Sisters’ YouTube channel.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

As Japan continues to grapple with growing uncertainty over COVID-19, a friendly supernatural creature once popular in feudal Japan has made a comeback to fight the virus, this time on social media.

By mid-March 2020, the hashtag #Amabie (#アマビエ) trended on Twitter as people from around Japan shared drawings and other creations of an otherworldly beast called a ‘yokai‘ (妖怪) conjured up during Japan's Edo period two hundred years ago.

amabie wikipedia

An Edo-era depiction of an ‘amabie’. Image Public Domain, from Wikipedia.

Resembling a somewhat homely and unattractive mermaid with long hair, in Edo times, the ‘yokai’, called ‘amabie’ (A-MA-BI-EH), was said to protect against pestilence similar to today's COVID-19. According to a legend, by drawing a picture of an ‘amabie’, it was possible to ward off disease.

On Twitter, people have resurrected the ‘yokai’ by sharing their own pictures of the creature using the hashtag #Amabie (#アマビエ).

Eradicate the plague! #amabie

I also appeal to the ‘kami’ (NOTE: A ‘yokai’ can be a kind of ‘kami’ or god in Japanese folklore) for protection.

Not everyone draws a picture of an ‘amabie’. Some people have created their own amulets in ‘amabie’ form. This Twitter thread by staff at a publication devoted to arts and crafts called ‘Tezukuri Town’ (Handmade Town) shows how:

In hopes of a quick return to peace and normalcy, the editorial department (at our magazine) has created an ‘amabie’ mascot.
The pattern and instructions are included in the next tweet, so try making your own.

Knitted ‘amabie’ is also popular:

I have knitted an ‘amabie’. Was there a monster that was loved so quickly in such a short time?

Writing in FU, a monthly magazine published in Fukui Prefecture, Nagano Eishu, a researcher and folklorist, explains the traditional appeal of ‘amabie':

一つの理由として、珍獣・幻獣の姿を「見る」と除災招福の御利益が得られるとする心性の存在が挙げられる。

舶来の象やラクダ、はたまた人魚を描いた摺物は”護符”としての機能も持ちあわせていた。見たり、貼り置いたりするだけで寿命が延び、悪事災難から逃れられると人々は考えたのである。

One reason is that there is the idea (in traditional Japanese folklore) that by “seeing” the appearance of a rare or fantastic creature, we can capture some of its mystical benefits and help eradicate misfortune. In the past, (besides ‘amabie’), people also drew pictures depicting elephants, camels and even mermaids, which all functioned as amulets. People thought that simply looking at or posting these images would extend their lifespan and help evade evil.

Nagano goes on to explain that during an 1858 epidemic in Japan, illustrations of “three-legged monsters resembling monkeys” were sold throughout Edo (contemporary Tokyo) as a charm to ward off cholera.

People continue to share images of ‘amabie’ on Twitter. You can see more of the creations by following the hashtag #アマビエ (‘amabie).

‘Amabie’ appear in a variety of media. This video shows an artist carving a traditional Japanese seal in the form of the ‘yokai':

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