In 1846, a Japanese policeman drew a legendary mermaid with scales like a coat of mail and flowing hair that ran all the way down to three mer-fins. He’d come across the creature while investigating a report of a greenish glow in the water and had listened as the fish-person forecasted a good harvest and added, almost as an aside:
“Should an epidemic come,” the beaked Amabie said, “draw me and show me to the people.”
An early Japanese newspaper re-printed the drawing using wooden blocks, following Amabie’s advice.
Covid-era artists have replicated the figure as well, invoking its protection against the disease, with new drawings and stuffed animals and needlepoint stitchings. And in a Japanese temple, Amabie inspired priests to begin praying to a purported mummy of a mermaid.
The withered figure, which has a single, large tail fin, measures just 15 inches and curls its hands up to a monkey-like head, as if it died in the act of screaming. The long-time owner of the relic, the Enjuin temple in Asakuchi, put it on public display about 40 years ago before moving it to a fire safe.
“We have worshipped it, hoping that it would help alleviate the coronavirus pandemic even if only slightly,” chief priest Kozen Kuida tells The Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
According to legend (and a note associated with the mummy), a fisherman caught the little person in a fishing net between 1736 and 1741 and decided to keep it. From there, the remains passed to successive generations of the “Kojima family” and other owners before reaching the temple.
A Look Inside the Japanese Mermaid
Recently, a team of scientists examined the mummy and threw an array of technologies at it: CT scans (conducted at a veterinary hospital), X-rays, electron microscopy, fluorescent X-ray analysis, DNA testing and radiocarbon dating.
Instead of uncovering the expected Frankenstein animal and fish parts, they found what was effectively a paper mâché doll made of paper and cloth held together by a paste-like substance. For added effect, the maker had glued croaker-fish skin to the lower half and pufferfish scales to the upper extremities.
Researchers speculated that the doll was meant to imitate the ningyo of Japanese folklore, ghastly, Pacific-dwelling fish men that carried certain healing powers.
For all this, the maker neglected to give the figure much of a core. The team led by the Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts found no wood or other skeleton inside the mummy, only more cloth, paper and cotton.
Solving the Mystery of the Japanese Mummies
The mummy’s jutting jaw once belonged to a carnivorous fish, the researchers concluded, and the weathered hair that furred the “skull” was from a mammal. Radiocarbon dating estimated that the mummy’s builder had crafted it (and likely sold it) in the late 19th century, not long after the emergence of the Amabie story. Other such mummies reside in temples and museums around Japan: the researchers found a total of 15, many of which are frozen in a similar screaming pose.
Another donated by a British royal belongs to the British Museum, where it once appeared in a “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” exhibit.
“Mermaids presented as three-dimensional curiosities in European drawing-rooms and popular sideshows from at least the 17th Century,” the museum says. “A significant number of these seem to have originated in East Asia, especially in Japan.”