Amabie, monster that could cure epidemics


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Amabié (pronounced a-ma-bee-ay), a legendary mermaid-like creature who is said to emerge from the sea to prophesize good harvests and epidemics,1” gained popularity early in the COVID-19 outbreak in Japan.

“Amabié” comes from a old folklore. Writings about it goes as far back as 1846. “Amabié”, is a creature that was found at sea by an officer who went to investigate a strange light. It told the officer that a disease was about to spread, and that its drawings should be shown people to help them.

The officer left a charming sketch and the story was printed and disseminated in kawaraban (woodblock-printed bulletins that were a kind of newspaper of the time featuring news, outrageous gossip, and rumors).2

First appearance of Amabie on Twitter

As discussed by Dr. Kimura, Japanese people have long found ways to “live with” diseases. One way was to treat them as deities and calm their spirits, another was to turn them into a manageable being that resembled an animal or a human, called “Yōkai”. Amabié was one of them.

Modernized fan manga of Shigeru Mizuki regarding Amabie created by a Twitter user

Using social media, Amabié became an online phenomenon. “first tweet connecting Amabié to the COVID-19 pandemic appeared on January 30, 2020, and on February 27, 2020, yōkai artist Orochidō reignited interest in the character with a tweet of a contemporary painting and a call to draw and share similar images. The tweet provides a time stamp for the #Amabie phenomenon (if it didn’t start it) and appeared to fuel the #AmabieChallenge on Twitter, a super-spreader event that had the public drawing Amabié and showing it to others in line with the character’s original prophesy. There were 28 tweets with the term Amabié (in Japanese) on March 1, 2020; more than 1000 on March 4, 2020; a peak 46 000 on March 15, 2020; 10 000 to 20 000 almost every day in April; and 3000 to 10 000 per day in June 2020.

Known celebrities dressed up as Amabie

The popularity has spread outside of online platforms into real life. Amabié is being used in various campaigns from public transit to MHLW to encourage people to stay home. “Amabié is also a feature character in the official national coronavirus contact tracing app released June 19, 2020.”

MHLW’s official Twitter account asking people to Stay Home using a dtawing of Amabie

Most recently, designer of a globally famous character “pikachu” has designed amabie to be printed on to “ema”, which are used at shrines for people to write their wishes and prayers.