the online database of Japanese folkore

Ika no Kōan

烏賊の甲庵
いかのこうあん

Translation: a name meaning “Doctor Cuttlebone”

Appearance: Ika no Kōan is the name of a cuttlefish who served as an advisor and physician in Ryūgū, the royal court of the dragon king of the ocean. He is typically depicted as a human dressed as an Edo Period doctor with a cuttlefish on top of his head.

Origin: Ika no Kōan appears in Tatsu no miyako sentakubanashi: imotako no yurai (“Tales from the Dragon Palace: The Origin of Imotako”), a comical story published in 1791 which describes a fantastical origin for imotako, a dish made of skewered octopus and taro. His name is a pun; Ika no kō refers to a cuttlefish’s internal shell—a common ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine—while an was a common suffix given to doctors during the Edo Period.

Legends: When the dragon king Ryūō VII fell gravely ill, all of the undersea realm’s best doctors were summoned to court to come up with a treatment. Ika no Kōan recognized the king’s symptoms as similar to an illness that had once befallen the princess Otohime. He prescribed for the king the same medicine which had cured her—medicine made from the liver of a living monkey. The difficult task of fetching a living monkey’s liver fell upon the king’s most trust advisor, an octopus.

The octopus failed to retrieve the living monkey’s liver. But instead of admit his failure, he decided to trick the court. He placed a taro in a jar and presented it to the king and the royal doctors. He explained that when the monkey was cut open, his liver was accidentally crushed and transformed into a taro.

Ika no Kōan knew that the octopus was lying. He wanted to object, but he was unable to speak out due to the octopus’ influence with the king. Yet without the liver of a living monkey, Ika no Kōan was unable to create the medicine that the king needed. His expertise was wasted, and the beloved king Ryūō VII sadly died of his illness.

Alphabetical list of yōkai