Covid-19 Reawakens Japan’s Healing Spirits

Artists are bringing back Amabie, a ‘yōkai’ associated with protection from disease.

In the first half of 1846, a kawaraban, or cheaply printed broadside, recorded a strange account in Japan’s old Higo Province on Kyūshū island. A local government official had spotted a curious creature in the water one evening: a scaly, three-legged figure with long hair and a beak. Even more curious, it had warned him of a forthcoming illness and instructed him to draw and distribute its image for protection. A sketch was printed next to this account, and as the kawaraban spread, so did tales of this mysterious half-merperson, half-bird, from Kyūshū all the way to Edo.

Known as Amabie, this yōkai, or spirit, has become associated with refuge from epidemics. It makes sense, then, that it has resurfaced during the global COVID-19 pandemic, only this time on social media. Illustrations of Amabie are circulating on Twitter and Instagram under the hashtags #amabie and #アマビエ; artists around the world are drawing and sharing Amabie in hopes of repelling disease, or at the very least honing their talents and finding community while social distancing.

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