You’re probably already familiar with the amabie (pronounced amabié). Because of old legends about its image being able to prevent epidemics, this lucky yokai has been making the rounds on social media, and even on national television here in Japan. It’s the most media attention a yokai has gotten in a while! But there are some other lesser known, luck-bringing, yokai that also supposedly protect you from disease. So today I won’t just be covering the amabie, but these 11 other lucky yokai too!
Disclaimer; while these yokai’s legends say they protect against viruses, there is no better protection than wearing a mask, washing your hands and social distancing as much as you can. So please, please, do all that.
Also, I don’t think I should need to say this, but you never know… I am in no way saying that keeping these yokai’s images around will actually keep you safe, haha. This is purely an educational article about the different yokai which have disease-preventing legends about them.
If you prefer to watch a video rather than read, then check out my YouTube version of this article (it’s the exact same content). Otherwise, read on!
The Amabie has the head of a bird, the body of a fish, and long flowing locks. It’s actually quite a cute combination, even in the original drawing. Perhaps that’s why it’s become so popular out of all the possible lucky yokai that could have gone viral? (Some of which were actually more famous than the amabie!)
How The Amabie Went Viral
The trendsetter may have been the twitter account Orochidou_youkai, an art shop specializing in hanging scrolls of yōkai, who tweeted out a picture of the amabie in late February. Also the manga artist Shigeoka Hidemitsu, who posted a picture of his own painting of an amabie a few days later.
With countless renditions of the amabie on twitter you’ve probably already seen it a lot by now. And I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in Tokyo there are amabie shirts, charms, snacks and drawings for sale everywhere touristy.
Now the Japanese government has gotten involved, using the Amabie in a poster warning young people warning that they can spread COVID-19 without knowing.
But why is this yokai’s image associated with an ability to stop disease? To answer that, we must go back to its origins.
The Legend of the Amabie
The amabie’s legend was first recorded in a wood-block print newspaper, a kawaraban, in 1846. According to the paper, an amabie appeared off the coast of kyushu, predicted a good harvest, and then said the words that have made it popular today “Should an epidemic come, draw me and show me to the people.” Since then, we sure have drawn it a lot.
Since I still have many yokai to talk about today, that’s it for the amabie. Gaijin goombah has done a great video specifically on the amabie, so you can go check him out for a more in depth discussion. I’ll link his video below!
2. The Hime-Uo
While the amabie is the most well known, one of the first lucky yokai sightings is of the hime-uo, or kamiike-hime. English can be translated into the princess fish. The hime-uo supposedly appeared in the Hirado Province (current day Nagasaki prefecture) in 1819, which makes this one of the earliest records for a lucky yokai sightings with specifically protective images.
The hime-uo looks like a giant gold scaled fish, decorated with three gems on each side, and whose tail contains three swords. It has the head of a woman, wreathed in long dark hair and topped with antlers.
The hime-uo announced herself as a messenger of Ryugu, the Dragon God. When she appeared, she said that for the next seven years there would be a bumper crop (a good harvest), but after that a plague would descend. She also said that if you draw her image and look at it, you would be protected from the plague.
3. The Jinja-Hime
Later the same year the hime-uo’s image circulated, in Edo, people began to distribute pictures of another, similar lucky yokai: the jinja-hime. Her legend was almost exactly the same: they called her a servant of the dragon-god, and saying her image will bring protection from an upcoming epidemic.
The jinja-hime’s name means shrine princess, she has the body of a snake, but with added fins for swimming and the head of a woman with horns.
According to Saito Gesshin, an Edo era author, upon the success of the hime-uo, someone might have copied the image of the nure-onna a snake with the head of a woman, combined it with the legend of the hime-uo, to create the jinja-hime. So there’s some debate about whether or not the jinja-hime and the hime-uo are essentially one and the same.
Whether or not they are the same creature, the jinja-hime and the hime-uo are credited with being the trendsetters in the early 1800’s for lucky yokai whose images bring protection. The legends of the amabie, and many of the other yokai I’ll be talking about next, were probably first inspired by these aquatic servants of the dragon god!
4. The Honengame
The honen-game is another yokai, which may have appeared even earlier than the Jinja-hime. It looks like a giant turtle, with the head of a horned woman.
Supposedly, in 1669 a hōnengame calling itself kame onna appeared on the shores of Echigo Province (present day Niigata Prefecture). Although the honengame supposedly appeared pretty early on in the Edo era, it experienced a surge in popularity around the same time as the other prophetic yokai. A newspaper from 1839 said that fishermen had captured a live honengame in Kishū (current Wakayama and Mie Prefectures)
5. The Umidebito
An umidebito appeared in Fukushimagata, Echigo Provice (present-day Niigata Prefecture) in mid-April of 1849. According to the story, bystanders saw a bright light just off the shore, and heard the voice of a woman calling out.
Everyone was too afraid to approach. Everyone that is, but the samurai Shibata Chūsaburō. He came close, to see a woman, with a scaled body, in a giant shell.
She gave him the (by now familiar) prophecy about a bumper crop followed by an epidemic, and about looking at her image for protection.
This yokai is probably another copycat of the hime-uo, but you can never have too many protective yokai images amiright?
6. The Amabiko
This yokai is the direct predecessor to the Amabie. The amabiko also has three legs, just like the amabie. However, instead of being scaled, it is covered in fur and has a large rounded nose and slightly humanoid face. So if the amabie is like a fish, the amabiko is closer to a monkey.
The thing is, we’re still not sure about the connection between the amabie and the amabiko. The amabiko predates the amabie, and has more recorded sightings. Its likeness was also thought to ward off illness, just like the amabie, and in fact, during the Edo Era, it was the amabiko whose image was the more popular one.
So, it’s possible that the amabie’s legend was inspired by the Amabiko’s, while the Amabiko’s legend was inspired by the Jinja-hime’s before that.
7. The Arie
Another popular yokai inspired by the amabiko’s legend is the arie, which appeared in Higo Province in 1876 according to the Kōfu Nichinichi Shimbun. It has a scaled body, a mane of long hair, a long neck and a tail.
8. The Yogen-no-tori
The yogen no tori is the only bird-like lucky yokai on our list. It is a two headed crow, with one white head and and one black. This yokai is a messenger for the gods, come to foretell disasters like epidemics. Once again, its image offers protection from said disasters.
By now, you’re probably wondering: what’s with all these protective yokai cropping up in the Edo Era?
Well, the late 1800’s had a lot of epidemics, in particular outbreaks of cholera. The reason for these epidemics was not well understood, and methods of treatment were often ineffective, so people turned to yokai images and good luck charms as a source of comfort, for some sense that they might be protected. This brings us back to the yogen-no-tori, as it is associated one epidemic in particular.
A serious cholera outbreak struck Japan in the summer of 1858. During the outbreak, a government official discovered the legend of the yogen no tori and reported it in Bōshabyō ryūkō nikki, a journal describing the outbreak.
According to his report, a yogen-no-tori was spotted the year before in 1857, near Mount Haku, and since there was indeed an epidemic a year later, it had proven its prophetic abilities. After that, it’s image became a popular cholera-fighting charm.
9. The Maneki-neko
If you want a more in depth discussion on this yokai, go check out my cat yokai article! All maneki-neko bring good luck, but if you want a lucky cat statue to protect against something specific, not just any one will do. The paw the cat raises indicates what kind of fortune it will bring.
When it comes to business, the right paw is for getting more money, while the left is to get more customers.
The color of the cat matters too. White or tabby coloured lucky cats are the usual kind, brining general good fortune.
Gold or yellow lucky cats are for wealth, pink are for romance and black are to protect against evil.
The most pertinent lucky cat right now though, is the red one, which wards against illness.
10. The Hakutaku
The hakutaku is a white ox, with three eyes on its head and on each of its sides. and a total of six horns, two on its head and two on each of its sides. It is beast of wisdom, only appearing in eras and countries governed by wise and good rulers.
The hakutaku actually comes from Chinese mythology. Its Chinese name is bai ze.
It appeared to the Yellow Emperor and gave him a book detailing all the different kinds of evil yokai, what kind of dangers they bring and how to deal with them. This book, the Hakutaku-zu, later disappeared unfortunately (I wish I could have read it!)
In the Edo era, because of the hakutaku’s knowledge of evil yokai, people sold protective charms in its likeness.
In Japan there was a sighting of it in Toyama in 1827. It appeared on Mount Tateyama as a creature known as a kudabe, although, this might actually have been a kudan, the next yokai on our list.
11. The Kudan
The kudan is also a prophetic yokai. It has the appearance of cow with the face of a human, although in more ancient accounts it is more like a minotaur, with the head of a cow and the body of a human.
The Edo era legend says that this yokai is born to a cow, right before major disasters like famine or illness. The kudan will live just long enough to foretell the disaster, and when the disaster comes to pass, it will die. Although the kudan’s appearance foretells disaster, it is also a yokai which represents honesty, because it always speaks the truth. So people began to associate its likeness with good fortune. They believed that talismans and paintings with its image would protect from the very disasters it foretells.
12. The Kotobuki
This chimerical creature is composed of all the different animals in the zodiac. Again, the kotokubi appeared during the Edo era, and it’s likeness was supposed to ward off disease. At the time, people were already producing good luck charms featuring the twelve animals of the zodiac.
So at some point, someone must have thought: you know what? The 12 zodiac animals are lucky… So a single animal made of all 12 must be even more lucky… And then they probably thought: I should draw that, to sell its picture and make money (evil laughter).
And so the kotokubi was born. It has the head of a rat, the ears of a hare, the horns of an ox, the comb of a rooster, the beard of a sheep, the mane of a horse, the neck of a dragon, the back of a boar, the shoulders and belly of a tiger, the front legs of a monkey, the rear legs of a dog, and the tail of a snake. Whew, that’s a lot of animal parts. Can you spot all 12 of them in my lovely diy collage ?
A Timeline of Lucky Yokai Spottings
So there you have it, the complete set of 12 protective yokai (although there are a few stray legends here and there I might have missed).
Here’s the timeline, with the date each yokai was first spotted. As you can see, the hakutaku is the oldest, since its legend originated in China. People only re-popularized it as a protective yokai during the Edo era. Then the honengame, which was technically the first yokai to talk about good harvests and plagues… although I can’t find where this date originates from in a specific Japanese text… After the hime-uo and jinja-hime really began the whole 1800’s yokai craze, the kudan popped up, as did the amabiko which led to the arie and amabie, and another water prophesying yokai, the umidebito. And somewhere in there the kotokubi shows up, although the exact date its images began to circulate is unknown.
If you want to read about another chimerical yokai, come check out the half-woman, half-spider jorōgumo !
It really just goes to show how folklore is a creative process, each yokai being inspired or altered by other previous legends!
Towards the end of the 1800’s, around 1877, the government cracked down on all of these protective yokai images, because things had gotten out of hand, and greedy people were trying to profit off of them. So it’s pretty funny that they’ve become official mascots today.
But even if they don’t have magic protective powers, if these images can bring some happiness and fun to dark times, I think that’s magic enough, don’t you?
Check out Gaijin Goombah’s Amabie video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ob8Bv8iDBXw
Here’s an article on protective yokai from the national museum of japanese history, which I used as a source: https://www.rekihaku.ac.jp/english/outline/publication/rekihaku/170/witness.html