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Amabie

Amabieアマビエ
あまびえ

TRANSLATION: unknown; possibly a misspelling of “amabiko”
HABITAT: oceans
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Amabie is a mermaid-like yōkai with a mixture of human and fish features. It has long hair and a scaly body. It has a beak-like mouth, and three legs. It glows with a bright light that can be seen from the shore. They are auspicious yōkai—keeping a picture of an amabie can protect you from disease.

ORIGIN: Little is known of the amabie’s characteristics. However, its story is very similar to other prophetic yōkai such as jinja hime and kudan, which deliver a prognostication and then disappear. These yōkai began appearing during a period when diseases like cholera were killing people all over the world. Images of protector yōkai that could be used as charms against sicknesses were in high demand. It is very possible that amabie was a sort of copycat yōkai, following the trends of the time.

The origin of the name amabie is a mystery. There is only one record of amabie in existence, and it appears very similar to another yokai with a similar name: amabiko. There are numerous recorded amabiko sightings, and all of them are minor variations on the same theme: a three-legged creature that appears on the water to deliver a prophecy about abundant harvests and disease. Similarly, amabiko instructs people to spread its image around to protect them from the disease. “Amabie” may have been a simple typographical error, or else it may be a regional variation of the amabiko.

LEGENDS: The only recorded sighting of an amabie comes from Higo Province (present-day Kumamoto prefecture) in April of 1846. For some nights in a row, a bright light could be seen in the waters off shore. One night, a government official went out to see to investigate the strange light. When he approached, a strange creature appeared to him. The creature introduced itself as an amabie. It told the government official that a six-year bumper crop was coming. It also said that should there be an outbreak of disease, he should immediately show the amabie’s picture to people everywhere, as it would protect them against harm. After that, the creature returned to the sea. Shortly after, the amabie’s story along with a woodblock print image of it was featured in the newspaper to be distributed to as many people as possible.

Shachihoko

Shachihoko
しゃちほこ

TRANSLATION: fish-tiger
ALTERNATE NAMES: shachi
HABITAT: oceans
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Shachihoko are fearsome sea monsters. They have the body of a large fish and the head of a tiger. Their broad fins and tails always point towards the heavens, and their dorsal fins have numerous sharp spikes. Shachihoko live in colder, norther oceans. They are able to swallow massive amounts of water with a single gulp and hold it in their bellies. They are also able to summon clouds and control the rain.

INTERACTIONS: Shachihoko are often found adorning the rooftops of Japanese castles, temples, gates, and samurai residences. They are placed facing each other on opposite ends of a roof. They serve as protector spirits, similar to the oni roof tiles also commonly found on castles. It was believed that in the event of a fire, the shachihoko could protect the building by summoning rain clouds or by spitting out the massive amounts of water they had previously swallowed.

ORIGIN: Shachihoko as an element of construction evolved from shibi, large, ornamental roof end tiles. Shibi originated in China during the Jin dynasty and were popularized in Japan during the Nara and Heian periods. During the Sengoku period, when castles rapidly began appearing all over Japan, shibi were reimagined as large fish, and the image of the shachihoko was popularized. From them on, shachihoko remained popular elements of Japanese roof construction.

The shachihoko’s origins may go even further back, to India. In Hindu mythology, there is a large sea monster named Makara who is half-fish and half-beast (sometimes depicted as an elephant, a deer, a crocodile, or another animal). Makara was a powerful protector and servant of various deities. Images of Makara were commonly used in temple architecture, particularly over archways and doorways, or as rain spouts. Japanese versions of Makara tend to resemble the shachihoko more than they resemble the original Hindu creature.

Today, the Japanese word for the orca is shachi—no doubt because of its similarity to this creature.

Jinja hime

Jinjahime神社姫
じんじゃひめ

TRANSLATION: shrine princess
HABITAT: deep lakes and oceans
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: A jinja hime is a serpentine creature roughly six meters long. It has two horns on its head, a long tail, a dorsal fin, and flippers. Its face is that of a human woman. It resembles a ningyo, the Japanese mermaid.

BEHAVIOR: Jinja hime spend most of their lives underwater, and as a result rarely interact with humans. They are the servants of Ryūgū, the palace of the sea dragon king.

ORIGIN: Jinja hime was first sighted in Hizen Province (present-day Saga and Nagasaki Prefectures) in 1819 by the Edo period scholar Katō Ebian. He recorded the encounter in his book Waga koromo. According to Katō, he encountered a fish-like creature on a beach in Hizen. The creature spoke to him: “I am a messenger from Ryūgū, called jinja hime. For the next seven years there will be a bumper crop. After that, there will be an epidemic of cholera. However, those who see my picture will be able to avoid hardship, and instead will have long life.” After delivering her prophecy, the jinja hime disappeared into the sea. Katō printed an illustration of the jinja hime in Waga koromo so that all could see it and be protected.

The news of the jinja hime and her prognostication became so popular that it spawned numerous copycat stories across Japan. Not long after the sighting of jinja hime, stories about other yokai with foresight, such as kudan and amabie, began popping up all over Japan. Jinja hime is thought to be the basis for all of these stories.

The giant oarfish strongly resembles the size and description of jinja hime. Its name in Japanese is ryūgū no tsukai, which means “servant of Ryūgū.”

Kotobuki

Kotobuki寿
ことぶき

TRANSLATION: congratulations, long life
HABITAT: unknown
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The kotobuki is an auspicious chimera whose body contains parts from all twelve animals of the zodiac. It has the head of a rat, the ears of a hare, the horns of an ox, the comb of a rooster, the beard of a sheep, the mane of a horse, the neck of a dragon, the back of a boar, the shoulders and belly of a tiger, the front legs of a monkey, the rear legs of a dog, and the tail of a snake.

ORIGIN: The kotobuki was first documented in the Edo period. Woodblock prints of it were popular gifts. Almost no explanation about the creature was included in these prints, other than that it was said to come from India, it could understand human speech, and was called kotobuki. Merely possessing an image of the kotobuki was thought to be enough to protect a person from sickness and disease.

Good luck charms featuring the animals of the zodiac were popular during the Edo period. Even without a description, customers would recognize the twelve zodiac signs hidden in this beast. Further, the name kotobuki is a celebratory and congratulatory word, which makes this creature instantly identifiable as a powerful and auspicious creature.

 

Itsumade

Itsumade以津真天
いつまで

TRANSLATION: “until when?”
ALTERNATE NAMES: itsumaden
DIET: the lamentation of the dead

APPEARANCE: Itsumade are kaichō, or strange birds. They have the face of a human with a pointed beak, and the body of a snake with wings, and terrible claws. Their wingspan is 4.8 meters.

BEHAVIOR: Itsumade appear in the night sky during times of trouble—such as plagues and disasters, or flying over battlegrounds where many have died. In particular, they fly over places where there is suffering or death, yet little has been done to alleviate the pain of the living or pacify the spirits of the dead. The strange birds fly about in circles all night long, crying out in a terrible voice.

ORIGIN: Itsumade make their first recorded appearance in the Taiheiki, a fictional history of Japan written in the 14th century. According to the Taiheiki, a terrible plague spread during the fall of 1334. The suffering of the plague victims is what summoned the itsumade.

Itsumade’s name is not written in the Taiheiki; it was added later by Toriyama Sekien. He named this yōkai for its horrible cry of “Itsumademo?” which means, “Until when?” The birds appear to be asking those below how long will this suffering go unnoticed. It is thought that the spirits of the dead and suffering form into onryō which take the shape of these birds. They demand recognition of their suffering and torment.

LEGENDS: One night during the fall of 1334, the itsumade suddenly appeared above the hall for state ceremonies, crying out, “Itsumademo? Itsumademo?” Panic erupted amongst the people of the capital. The same creature came back the next night, and every night thereafter. Finally, the imperial court decided that something had to be done. They recalled Minamoto no Yorimasa’s triumph against the nue many years earlier, and decided to summon the warrior Oki no Jirouzaemon Hiroari. Hiroari was an expert archer. He used a signal arrow that let off a loud whistle as it flew, and shot the monster out of the sky. Afterwards, Hiroari was given the name Mayumi, meaning true bow.

Mayumi Hiroari went on to become a famous warrior, and settled down in what is now Mayumi, Miyama City, Fukuoka Prefecture, where his grave still stands. The area was renamed in his honor after he died.