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Meet the Japanese Yokai That Will Save us From the Coronavirus

Here’s why Twitter is so into Amabie.

By 3 min read

One Japanese yokai (goblin) character has a long history of helping the nation deal with plagues, and the outbreak of COVID-19 has made it into something of a social media star.

Amabie (アマビエ), a half-human, half-fish yokai from the late Edo period, has become a hit on Twitter because it not only predicts plagues but says it will save people from illness if they share a drawing of it. 

Twitter (and Instagram) users have been posting not just drawings of the beaked, three-legged mermaid creature, but pictures of keyrings, origami, bread, Japanese sweets, and a whole other slew of objects featuring its likeness. Below, you’ll see a depiction of Amabie as the Mona Lisa.

Where did Amabie’s legend originate?

Amabie first dates back to 1846, when a government official went to Kumamoto Prefecture to investigate rumors of a glowing shape that was appearing in the ocean each night. The creature emerged from the water and introduced itself as Amabie before prophesizing six years of abundant harvest following an epidemic. It advised the official to draw a picture of it and show it to other people. A woodblock print drawn by the official carried the story all the way to the capital. 

Meet your savior.

The illustration depicted Amabie as having long hair, a beak, fins instead of ears, scales on the upper body, three legs, and diamond-shaped eyes. 

Taking the Amabie challenge

Twitter users are using the #アマビエチャレンジ (#amabiechallenge) and #Amabie tags to share a variety of drawing styles depicting the strange sea creature. Some show a scary monster with claws while others depict a beautiful, young, manga-style woman. Most are cute, though, with simple and bright colors.

It seems that the tag was kicked off by a post from a hanging scroll store. On Feb. 27, the shop posted an explanation of Amabie’s powers and a striking image of a scaly, human-like female figure. A tweet from Kyoto University in early March about the mysterious creature sparked further interest as Google search results for Amabie saw a sharp uptick shortly afterward.

 For many netizens, this was the first time they had heard of Amabie. 

In the first week of March, tweets mentioning Amabie ballooned. The vigorous Twitter following prompted the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to use a picture of Amabie in a public awareness poster aimed at young people warning that they can spread COVID-19 without knowing.

From GeGeGe no Kitaro to internet sensation

The colorful image of Amabie that many Twitter users have created is likely influenced by the depiction of the character by famous manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, who created the yokai-filled series GeGeGe no Kitaro in 1960. Amabie appeared on and off in the fifth season of the anime between 2007 and 2009. In the series, she appeared as a cute girl with pink hair and a scaly, light-green body. 

In her debut episode, titled “Yokai idol Amabie,” she was portrayed as self-centered. Amabie’s ability to predict the future saw her set up shop as a fortune teller. 

An idol for the ages

Please, make it stop. From the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

There have been about nine recorded sightings of Amabie throughout history, including a character of a similar nature, called Amabiko, who is believed to be the same yokai. The first was in 1844, in Niigata Prefecture, and the last in 1892.

So, how accurate was Amabie? Her sighting in 1846 was well-timed to warn against the influenza pandemic of 1847-1848. Subsequent sightings occurred while Japan suffered several severe illnesses that entered the country after it opened up to trade with foreign nations. 

Amabie’s story has been a welcome distraction from stressful daily news about the coronavirus, and sharing her drawings has connected social media users, even as they stay home.

You think Amabie is strange? Check out these terrifying Japanese mascots.

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