Sobacchi (left) and Amabie (right) demonstrate proper social distancing.

If you live in Japan or have been following Japan-related news, you’ve probably seen the mermaid-like creature on Sobacchi’s right at some point. It’s on announcements from the Ministry of Health, is sketched or pasted onto PSAs from businesses large and small, and is all over social media.

Screenshot from the contact tracing app COCOA

A sign detailing prevention measures at a local event. Both feature different styles of Amabie.

But what’s it doing here all of a sudden?

This creature is called Amabie (pronounced ah-mah-bee-ay), and it’s a folkloric being known as a yokai.

In Japan, yokai are somewhat comparable to the fair folk (or classical fairies) in Europe. Like fairies, yokai may be large or small, bold or shy, human-like or animalistic: at times benevolent, mischievous, or wicked towards humans. All this depends on the storyteller, time, and place.

In the case of Amabie specifically, according to legend it emerged from the water in what is now Kumamoto, hundreds of years ago. Amabie told the person who saw it that if its image was recreated and shown to others, it would provide protection from disease. Since then, during various epidemics in Japan, people drew and displayed Amabie, almost as a part of infection prevention measures. But it’s been decades since the last pandemic, so Amabie faded into obscurity amongst the countless other yokai legends.

This year, though, Amabie is anything but forgotten.

An Amabie-shaped fuurin wind chime

Since Amabie is having its moment in the spotlight, I wanted to learn more about the lore surrounding them through immersion in yokai country. Fortunately, just such a place is right next door: Tono, Iwate, the city of folklore.

Walking path near the folklore museum.

Tono got this name thanks to the work of Kunio Yanagita and Iwate-born Kizen Sasaki, who collaborated to write down the folk tales that Sasaki had heard in his childhood. By recording these tales, they elevated Japanese folklore into something that could be studied and distributed, and thus have a similar role in Japan to the Brothers Grimm.

Tono is said to be home to one of the most famous yokai: the kappa, a mischievous, humanoid, turtle-like creature that loves cucumbers and lives in rivers. Kappa appear in all kinds of popular media, from Japanese anime and video games to Harry Potter.

If one imagines where yokai might hide if they were real, Tono, with its abundant hills, forests, and streams, would be the perfect place. My first stop was Kappa-buchi or Kappa Pond (though it’s actually more of a stream.) The rush of water and the rustling grasses certainly made it seem like something could be living here, and I couldn’t help but almost wish there was, against my skeptical tendencies. The fairytale atmosphere led me to sit by a fishing rod with a cucumber attached and watch the water for some time, but alas no kappa emerged.

2 shots of the fishing rod, with a cucumber as “bait.”

Next stop was Denshoen, the Folklore Museum, with a notification poster featuring Amabie and a kappa practicing good prevention tactics at the entrance. Although there wasn’t much info about Amabie, there were plenty of interactive exhibits about all kinds of stories, plus a timeline (in English and Japanese) about Kizen Sasaki’s life.

A notice featuring bilingual guidance from yokai.

The gift shop carries The Legends of Tono in English and Japanese, both of which I happily snapped up. This book gave me a lot of insights for this article, so I really recommend it.

My own copies of The Legends of Tono.

Finally, I stopped at a michi-no-eki – literally “road station,” a kind of homespun, Japanese-style roadside rest stop – for a quick bite to eat before heading home. In addition to a ton of kappa-related souvenirs, I also spotted this adorable Hello Kitty kappa, with a mask (of course.)

Kappa Hello Kitty wears a mask and hides in a sake pot.

Speaking of Hello Kitty, Japan is somewhat well-known at this point for making mascots for almost everything, from gas companies to banks to the census or social security. A cute mascot can make a complex, stress-inducing concept more approachable. For me at least, a poster with a kind-looking Amabie will quickly catch my eye and give me a bit of peace of mind while following the rules.

To return to Amabie, I think it’s significant that the idea to create an image as a way to ward off illness would persist, illogical though it may be. It makes a sort of sense to craft an image of a protector, especially back when most diseases were mysterious and dreadful. Besides, I believe creativity can be a helpful coping mechanism in unpredictable times like these, so drawing this image may have been a comforting, meditative experience for the people of the past.

With that in mind, I decided to try my hand at drawing Amabie. I’m not much of an artist, but there are plenty of references and how-to videos online, and after a few tries, I created an image to be (more or less) happy with.

My own Amabie.






日本の妖怪は、ヨーロッパでいうfair folk(伝統的な妖精)に相当します。Fair folkのように、妖怪の種類は豊富で、大きかったり小さかったり、大胆だったり内気だったり、その形も人間だったり動物だったり、いたずら好きだったり害をなしたり、様々あります。