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Amabie: A Japanese Spirit Figure for the Pandemic

A sketch of Amabie from Shimbun bunko e, 1846. Courtesy of the Main Library, Kyoto University.

Amabie (アマビエ) is one of yōkai (妖怪), a class of mythological and supernatural spirits or monsters in Japanese folklore. It is said to have appeared in Higo no kuni, today’s Kumamoto prefecture, in 1846, when it was spotted by the town’s official. Amabie apparently told him that “Good harvests will continue for six years from the current year; if disease spreads, show a picture of me to those who fall ill and they will be cured.” This story was published with a sketch of Amabie in the woodblock bulletins that year.

Amabie being used for pandemic awareness. Courtesy of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Japan.

On February 27, 2020, an illustration of Amabie was posted on Twitter by a shop in Japan specializing in yōkai scroll paintings, offering Amabie as a way to deal with our current COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of people responded by posting images of illustrations, manga, stuffed toys and other figures of Amabie with #アマビエチャレンジ (#amabiechallenge). Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare even adapted Amabie as a mascot to warn people about the pandemic.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Amabie of Kumamoto, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, an artist from Haida Gwaii, recently saw an illustration of Amabie by the late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, who is known for his illustrations of yōkai. Yahgulanaas created his own interpretation of Amabie and posted it on social media. During difficult times like we are in now, his rendition is a reminder that legends and stories like this have a role to play in connecting people across the oceans.