As coronavirus spreads across the world, there are a few rays of hope following in its wake. From mass singalongs in locked-down Italian towns to the UK’s #chasetherainbow campaign – which sees crayoned and painted rainbows beaming from windows – the idea of communities coming together while social distancing has become a beacon of hope for us all.

In Japan, a country that has yet to enforce social distancing or announce an official lockdown, that hope has taken the form of a yōkai – one of a number of supernatural monsters and apparitions that have captured the Japanese psyche for centuries, appearing in everything from Edo period (1603-1868) woodblock prints to modern-day manga.

Japanese Twitter is currently inundated with depictions of a yōkai called Amabie – a squat, duck-billed creature with a scaly body, long hair and three webbed feet. But why?

An Amabie-shaped bento box by recipe book creator Kei Okuda.

For the answer, you have to go back to mid-May 1846, when a town official from what is now Kumamoto prefecture on the island of Kyushu went down to the sea to investigate reports of glowing lights. There he encountered a strange mermaid-like creature. “I am Amabie who lives in the sea,” it said. “For the next six years, there will be abundant crops across the land, but there will also be epidemics. Show my picture to people as soon as you can.” Then Amabie was gone.

The story circulated in newspapers – as did copycat sightings, including one of a land-based, ape-like version in 1876.Later depictions included, notably, Shigeru Mizuki’s ghosts and ghouls-filled manga GeGeGe no Kitaro (1960-69).

Though Mizuki passed away in 2015, his production company tweeted his drawing of Amabie on 17 March, with the words: “May the modern epidemic disappear.”

A noodle Amabie mascot created from chikuwa (tubular fish ‘sausage’) rising from a bowl of udon noodles.

A noodle Amabie mascot created from
chikuwa (tubular fish ‘sausage’) rising from a bowl of
udon noodles. Photograph: OKP Design

Wishful thinking maybe, but that one tweet sparked Twitter hashtags such as #amabiechallenge and #amabieforeveryone. While some users, including manga artists such as Mari Okazaki, have been sharing paintings and drawings of Amabie, other Twitter users have been more creative, posting pictures of embroidery, bowls of udon (thick wheat noodles) and bento lunchboxes all inspired by the apparition. Some have even dressed themselves (and their pets) up like Amabie and tweeted the photos alongside their own hopeful messages. And now Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has enlisted Amabie for an awareness flyer it tweeted, urging people to “stop the spread of infection.”

The hope — and sometimes humour — that accompanies each depiction is real, and Amabie has become a unifying force that has Japan reaching deep into its own obscure past to find solace in uncertain times.

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