Despatch from Tokyo | International

Amabie, the ‘spirit’ that went viral

As COVID-19 continues its global rampage, countries around the world are developing signature motifs of resistance. In Italy, it is balcony singing. In India, it is the ‘Go Corona!’ chant. In Japan, it is a three-legged mer-person with scaly skin, lank hair and a beak that looks like the artistic offspring of a marriage between Picasso and Dali: the amabie.

The amabie is a pictorial representation of a 19th century yokai or mythological spirit that has emerged as the social media mascot for the novel coronavirus, trending on Twitter and flooding Facebook feeds. Everyone from primary school children to the nation’s top manga artists are busy drawing and sharing its images. Even the Japanese Health Ministry has hitched a ride on the trend’s fishtails, using the amabie as part of its poster campaigns to spread awareness about the epidemic.

The story of the half-human, half-fish amabie spirit was first featured in a woodblock-printed news sheet in April 1846. The creature was said to have appeared in the sea off the western coast of Japan’s Kyushu island. It spoke to a government official who had been attracted by a shiny blob in the waters, giving the bewildered bureaucrat some good news and some bad news. The following years would bring bountiful harvests, it said, but also a bounty of epidemics. The yokai then instructed the official to draw and distribute its image for the protection of the people, before disappearing.

Occasional sightings of the amabie were subsequently reported for a few decades after its initial “discovery”, but as time went by, the yokai disappeared from the popular imagination. Then, on March 6 this year, Kyoto University Library posted a picture of the original news sheet from its digital archives on its Twitter account. The mythological spirit resurfaced into a world of hashtags at just the right moment: school closures had been announced, employees asked to telework, and a general anxiety about the coronavirus combined with boredom. The result: an amabie renaissance. A #amabie-search reveals thousands of drawings of the creature from the humorous to the macabre, in addition to creative outpourings, including amabie made from spaghetti and people in amabie cosplay.

History of pandemics

Japan has been struck by pandemics including small pox, dysentery and typhoid through most of its recorded history and these continued to ravage the population well into the 20th century. Although modern medicine and drastically improved hygiene and sanitation curbed the bulk of these in the post-World War era, their historical memory lingers as evidenced by the current response to COVID-19. Across the country, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are holding services, invoking ancient prayers to ward off the coronavirus. In a 21st century twist, some even allow devotees to join online in zoom video-conferences. Dusty guardian statues are being taken out of storage and set up outside universities and libraries.

The current popularity of the amabie can thus partly be explained as an example of the continuing influence of folklore in Japanese society. But there is another aspect to its ‘rise’ as well: the penchant for kawaii (cute) mascots. Japan is inundated with large-eyed, cuddly caricatures that serve as the mascots for everything from sports teams and government departments to corporations and their products. These can be downright bizarre. For example, pharmaceutical company Ichijiku, a manufacturer of laxatives, has a mascot called Kan-chan that looks like an adorable pink penguin with an enema on top of its head.

Last year, in what now feels like a prescient move, Japan's Quarantine Information Office had debuted a mascot called “Quaran” (short for quarantine). It looks like a cross between humpty dumpty and tinkerbell and sports goggles that ostensibly help it spot infectious diseases, prohibited food imports and other violations of Japanese customs law.

There is also the mascot of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district’s Food Sanitation Association’s safe hand-washing campaign, called Shinjuku Awawa — a sentient superhero soap bubble dressed in a red cape and booties that combats germs and poor hygiene. But, until the amabie resurfaced from the historical archive, COVID-19 had been conspicuously mascot-less. Its return riding the waves of social media is therefore unsurprising, but also useful. The yokai is providing solace, entertainment and talismanic value to an embattled and somewhat bored nation as people stay at home and disinfect.

(Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist based in Tokyo)

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 6:26:17 PM |

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