TRANSLATION: fruitful year fish
ALTERNATE NAMES: kaigyo (strange fish)
DIET: unknown; probably carnivorous
APPEARANCE: Hōnengyo are strange fish or amphibian yōkai which occasionally appear in rivers. They can grow quite to be large—at least over two meters long. Their bodies are long and flexible like a weasel’s, and they are covered in scales like a snake. They have legs like a turtle, and their eyes are like mirrors. They have black. spiked dorsal fins, and mosses and river grasses are often found attached to their massive bodies.
BEHAVIOR: Hōnengyo spend their lives away from humans, deep in rivers, and thus very little is known about their natural life cycle or behavior. They are only seen when they are accidentally caught by fishermen, or when they surface unexpectedly.
INTERACTIONS: Occasionally hōnengyo wash up on riverbanks in large cities, attracting lots of attention from locals. They have historically appeared just prior to years with bountiful catches, and it is believed that their appearance is a good omen of fortunes to come.
ORIGIN: The most famous hōnengyo sighting occurred in 1866. A strange fish was discovered on the bank of the Yodo River in Osaka. The story and a colorful illustration were widely circulated in the newspapers. The creature measured 7 shaku and 5 sun (between 2 and 3 meters) long. It weighed in at 20 kanme (about 70 kilograms). The article reported that in the past, when similar strange fish were discovered, their appearance was followed by several years of prosperity. Hoping that the appearance of this creature was an auspicious sign, the newspapers dubbed the creature “hōnengyo.”
Although it is referred to as a fish, its description and illustration more closely resemble an enormous amphibian or aquatic mammal. The Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) can grow up to 1.5 meters long and lives in rivers. It has been speculated that the hōnengyo of the Yodo River may have been a giant salamander which wandered down from the mountains, or a seal which wandered up from the ocean.
Hōnengyo has also gained attention due to the Edo Period illustration’s similarity to the Shōwa Era movie monster Godzilla, who appeared in theaters almost 90 years after hōnengyo’s newspaper debut.