the online database of Japanese folkore



Translation: unknown; varies from place to place depending on the kanji used
Alternate names: amabiko nyūdō
Habitat: oceans

Appearance: Amabiko are mysterious yōkai which emerge from the sea to deliver prophecies. They look and apelike, with protruding mouths, large round eyes, and big ears. Their bodies are covered in thick, long hair. They are usually said to have three legs, although some sightings of four-legged amabiko have been reported.

Behavior: Very little is known about amabiko, as they have only appeared a few times in history, and only briefly. They live in the seas around Japan, and have been spotted in Kyūshū as well as along the Sea of Japan coast. All amabiko sightings follow the same pattern: an amabiko emerges from the sea and delivers a prophecy. It foretells a period of bountiful harvest, followed by a period of disaster and disease. It instructs people to copy its image to use as protection against disease. Then it disappears.

Origin: During the latter half of the 19th century, Japan experienced a number of severe epidemics. It was believed that evil spirits were responsible for spreading disease, and that an effective way to keep them away was to display pictures of powerful good spirits. During this time there were a large number of sightings of prophetic savior yōkai, all of whom fall into the same pattern as amabiko. These yōkai appear briefly, present a prophecy, and then vanish. Newspapers circulated their stories, along with illustrations of the yōkai for people to hang in their homes as protective charms.

Other famous soothsaying yōkai include amabie, hakutaku, hōnengame, jinja hime, and kudan. Of these, amabie’s story and physical description are so similar to amabiko’s that it has been suggested that they may actually be the same yōkai. Amabie may have been created as a result of confusing between the characters  (ko) and  (e), which look similar in handwritten script.

Amabiko’s name has been written using a number of different kanji combinations, so the meaning varies from place to place. 尼彦 (nun boy) 天彦 (heavenly boy) 海彦 (sea boy) and 天日子 (sunlight child) have all been used to write its name. However, amabiko is usually written phonetically rather than with kanji, so the meaning of its name remains vague.

Alphabetical list of yōkai