the online database of Japanese folkore

Uondo

魚人
うおんど

Translation: a courtesan name meaning “fish person”
Diet: prefers expensive, luxurious foods and sweets

Appearance: Uondo is a ningyo courtesan and the illegitimate daughter of Urashima Tarō and a carp. She inherited the good looks of both of her parents, and was famous for her beautiful face.

Behavior: Uondo fell in love with and married a human fisherman. She became a courtesan in order to help pay off her husband’s debts.

Origin: Uondo comes from Hakoiri musume menya ningyo, a comical fairy tale written by Santō Kyōden in 1791. It capitalizes on the pop-cultural trends of 18th century Edo—the city’s famous red light districts, kabuki theater, the well-known legend of Urashima Tarō, and traveling sideshow spectacles called misemono which were all the rage at the time. A common misemono attraction was mummified yōkai, such as kappa and ningyo (mermaids), often made out of taxidermy by combining pieces of monkeys and fish. Kyōden’s fairy tale makes numerous references to misemono shows, as well as popular actors and celebrities of the day, and current events, making it a time capsule of Japanese pop culture in 1791.

Legends: Urashima Tarō was a playboy. He loved to visit the undersea kingdom’s red light districts and spend time with the beautiful aquatic courtesans there. One courtesan in particular—a carp named Orino—was so beautiful that Urashima Tarō fell madly in love with her. Orino loved the handsome Urashima Tarō as well. They spent many nights together, but because he was princess Otohime’s man, they could not remain together. Still, their love produced a child—a girl, who inherited the beauty of both of her parents. The child of a human father and fish mother, she was a ningyo.

Years later, a fisherman named Heiji was fishing in Shinagawa harbor when a ningyo suddenly jumped up into his boat. It was the beautiful and flirtatious daughter of Urashima Tarō and Orino, now an adult. She asked Heiji to marry her. The ningyo was so beautiful, and Heiji was old and alone, so he agreed.

Heiji and the ningyo loved each other. However, Heiji was poor and had debt. The ningyo looked for ways to earn money to help her husband, but with her fish body and no arms, her options were extremely limited.

One day, a brothel owner named Denzō noticed the ningyo’s stunningly beauty face. He came up with a scheme to get rich off of her. Denzō offered her a great deal of money to come work for him as a courtesan. Seeing this as the only way to help her husband, she accepted.

Denzō made plans for the ningyo’s immediate debut as an oiran. He ordered a splendid kimono, and had her hair and make up done in the most fashionable way. In the style of high class courtesans, he gave her a professional name: Uondo. Then he held an extravagant procession to announce her debut at his brothel.

However, Uondo’s debut did not go well. Her lack of arms and legs meant that she could do little except flop around like a fish. Worse, the brothel’s best perfumes and incenses could not mask her fishy smell. On top of it all, she was so tired from preparations and the procession that she fell asleep immediately after welcoming her first customer into her room. Confused and repulsed, the customer left and demanded his money back.

Denzō was outraged. He returned Uondo to her husband and demanded that Heiji pay for the expenses he incurred organizing her debut. Heiji and the ningyo were even worse off than before.

Then, Heiji remembered a story about how eating the flesh of a ningyo granted eternal life and youth. If that were the case, then merely licking a ningyo should surely have at least some revitalizing effect. Heiji and the ningyo opened up a ningyo licking shop, offering single licks at very high prices. The people of Edo lined up in the streets for the opportunity to add a few years to their lifespans by licking the ningyo.

Heiji and the ningyo became rich and famous. They made enough money from their ningyo licking shop to pay off all of their debts, and to make sure they never wanted for anything again. They lived happily ever after.

Alphabetical list of yōkai