the online database of Japanese folkore



Translation: human fish; mermaid, merman
Habitat: seas, oceans, and other large bodies of water
Diet: omnivorous; fish, seaweed, and other aquatic foods

Appearance: Mermaids are known as ningyo in Japanese, but they are very different from the mermaids of Western tradition. Unlike the mermaids of the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, ningyo from the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan are hideous to behold. Instead of seductive sirens, they are otherworldly nightmares. Ningyo are more fish than human. They can have anything from ugly, deformed fish-like faces, to entire human torsos with long, bony fingers and sharp claws. Ningyo range in size from a human child to a large seal.

These days, mermaids resembling the breeds known throughout the West—with an attractive human torso and a piscine lower body—are not unheard of in the Japanese islands. Since the end of the Edo period and the opening of Japan to the West, ningyo that resemble Western-style Atlantic mermaids have become popular in Japan. However, the traditional Japanese mermaid is more beast than beauty.

Interactions: Ningyo sightings go back to the earliest written histories of Japan. The first recorded mermaid sightings in Japan are found in the Nihon Shoki, which is one of the oldest books of classical Japanese history and dates back to 619 CE. The flesh of a ningyo is believed to grant eternal life and youth to those who eat it, and thus it is the subject of many folk tales. However, this meal carries a danger that most people unwilling to risk; ningyo can place a powerful curse on humans who try to wound or capture them. Some legends tell of entire towns that were swallowed by earthquakes or tidal waves after a foolish fisherman brought home a ningyo in one of his catches.

While their grotesque appearance and supernatural powers make them an intriguing subject, ningyo are best avoided at all costs.

Alphabetical list of yōkai