Reasons for the amabie boom

May 20, 2021

Contributions from 10 researchers in various fields
Dispatches from the coronavirus crisis
We selected 10 researchers from among the University of Tokyo’s 26 constituent departments and asked them to write one-page accounts of the coronavirus pandemic from the perspective of their own field of specialization. This also presented the opportunity for them to attempt to frame their own research through the lens of the pandemic.
What were UTokyo researchers thinking and feeling in the summer of 2020? What do researchers say when they are talking about the pandemic? Some answers to these questions will be found in this series of pages.

Reasons for the amabie boom

Sato-sensei photo
Kenji Sato
Sociology and cultural resources studies
Professor at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology

The amabie, a legendary sea creature believed to prophesy both disease and good fortune, has enjoyed tremendous popularity in Japan since early 2020. About 25 years ago, in my book Ryūgen-Higo [Rumor and Gossip] (Yūshindo Kōbunsha, 1995), I analyzed another fictional monster called a kudan, also said to have predicted bumper harvests and epidemics. I included the amabie in a diagram discussing the roles of prophecy and handwriting as elements of these legends. When I heard that this creature was experiencing a boom during the current coronavirus pandemic, I looked around and found that the world was overflowing with amabie. From papier-mâché daruma dolls to hand towels to nerikiri (a traditional Japanese sweet made from white bean paste) to baked goods, from handheld fans to wind chimes to sōmen noodles, from unglazed pottery figurines to t-shirts, even Japanese sake labeled “to be enjoyed at home!” Likenesses have also appeared made of bronze, stone and wood. For some reason, this creature has become extremely popular, and is being treated as a celebrity, both in the real world of products and the information space of social media. Globally, as well, it is being talked about as “A Mascot for the Pandemic” from Japan.

The first scholarly introduction to the amabie was in Kawaraban monogatari (1960) by Hideo Ono, the director of what was at that time UTokyo’s Institute of Journalism and Communication Studies. There he discussed a kawaraban (a woodblock-printed handbill) owned by Kyoto University dated the fourth month of 1846 (about mid-May on Japan’s lunisolar calendar), presenting the amabie as a curious tale alongside an illustration of the kudan. I won’t go into detail, but in my opinion, this was a modified or alternate rendering of a creature that had been popular about 27 years earlier, the jinja-hime (“shrine princess”) recorded in the entry for the fourth month of 1819 in Waga koromo [My Robes] by the Edo-period writer Katō Eibian. Going back another 14 years brings us to the ningyo (“merman” or “mermaid”) craze that took place in Etchū Province in the fifth month of 1805, when sightings of these auspicious creatures were reported and associated with protection against calamity.

In terms of iconography, the three-pronged tail represented as jinja-hime’s sword is carried over to amabie’s three legs. Its name appears variously in different manuscripts, including renderings such as shinja-hime (“divine serpent princess”), kami-ike-hime (“divine pool princess”), and hime-uo (“princess fish”). The masculine honorific hiko, which corresponds to the feminine hime, spawned the nickname amahiko (also written in a variety of ways), which led to the misreading amabie.

While some knowledgeable commentators argue that the essence of this phenomenon is our collective anxiety about this little-understood infectious disease and the desire to cling to some supernatural being, as an analysis I find this to be utterly unimpressive. Such anxiety can be found anywhere. The mechanism of the current amabie boom is a simpler matter.

First, a store specializing in hanging scrolls featuring yōkai (the generic term for supernatural beings in Japan) took to Twitter to describe the amabie’s merits in eradicating epidemics and called on everyone to draw their own renderings of the creature. This was at the end of February 2020, when the spread of coronavirus on a luxury cruise liner was in the news. In response, people competed to post their illustrations and other works on social media attached to unique hashtags, and the theme went viral. When a librarian of Kyoto University Library posted an image of the original kawaraban handbill on March 6, that added an element of historical reality.

We also can’t ignore the fact that the amabie was appointed at the beginning of April by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare as an awareness-raising icon to stem the spread of infection. That the likeness of the amabie was officially taken up by the government agency most active on the front lines and that people were called upon to spread it around and use it freely added legitimacy to its usage and stimulated the diverse forms of commercialization by businesses across the country I described above.

The spread of rumors and gossip is not a mass behavior based on false information or irrational beliefs induced by anxiety. It is more of a multi-dimensional game, driven by fascination, twists, and novel interpretations. Which is precisely why it should be analyzed with a level head.

Sake, Japanese sweets, hand towels: some examples of the ongoing commercialization of amabie

* This article was originally printed in Tansei 41 (Japanese language only). All information in this article is as of September 2020.

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