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Amabié—A Japanese Symbol of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Educational Objective
To understand how societies use symbols to understand and deal with periods of great uncertainty, like pandemics
1 Credit CME

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 is trending in Japan as a popular symbol of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

The image has been part of Japanese culture since 1846 when in Higo Province (today’s Kumamoto Prefecture),1 according to legend, an unnamed officer went to investigate a strange light that had been appearing at sea. The officer encountered the strange creature who explained, “I live in the sea. My name is Amabié. Good harvest will continue for six years. At the same time disease will spread. Draw me and show me to the people as soon as possible,” before submerging. The official 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

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Yuki Furukawa, MD, Department of Neuropsychiatry, The University of Tokyo Hospital, 7-3-1, Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, 113-8655, Japan (furukawa.yuki@gmail.com).

Published Online: July 17, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12660

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Additional Information: Some references for this article appear online as embedded hyperlinks.

References
1.
Collection of Kyoto University Library. Monster under the sea in Higo Province, 1846. Higo no kuni kaichū no ayakashi. Published online 2003. Accessed June 24, 2020. https://rmda.kulib.kyoto-u.ac.jp/item/rb00000122
2.
Ono  H . Kawaraban story.  Kawaraban Monogatari. Yūzankaku shobō; 1960.
3.
Foster  MD .  The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. University of California Press; 2015.
4.
Yumoto  G, . The true identity of the yōkai Amabié. Yōkai amabie no shōtai. In: Yumoto  G , ed. Meiji yōkai newspapers.  Meiji yōkai shinbun. Kashiwa shobō; 1999:178-180.
5.
Nagano  E . Amabiko the prophetic beast, revisited. Yogenjū Amabiko-Saikō. In: Komatsu  K , ed. The forefront of the study of yokai culture.  Yōkai bunka kenkyū no saizensen. Serika shobō; 2009:131-162.
6.
Tsunemitsu  T . Epidemics and prophetic beasts. Ryūkōbyō to yogenjū. In: Tsunemitsu  T , ed. Yōkai that prophesizes.  Yogen suru yōkai. Rekishi minzoku hakubutsukan shinkōkai; 2016:47-88.
7.
Yumoto  G . The trend and aspects of mysterious articles in newspapers of the Meiji period. Meijiki no shinbun ni miru kai’i kiji no dōkō to shosō. In: Komatsu  K , ed. The Japanese view of “the other world.”  Nihonjin no iseikan. Serika shobō; 2006:161-175.
8.
Mizuki  S, . Shigeru Mizuki's encyclopedia of yōkai 2.  Mizuki Shigeru no zoku-yōkai jiten. Tōkyōdō shuppan; 1984.
9.
Okubo  K , ed. Everyone's Amabie.  Minna no amabie. Fusōsha; 2020.
10.
Naruse  H , Jindai  K , Saito  T .  Fictional heroes take on real public health problems: Japan’s use of manga and anime in health campaigns. BMJ Opinion blog. Published June 11, 2019. Accessed June 24, 2020. https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2019/06/11/fictional-heroes-take-on-real-public-health-problems-japans-use-of-manga-and-anime-in-health-campaigns/
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