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August 31, 2021

Ningyo: The Ugly (and Delicious!) Japanese Mermaid (Ep. 83)

Reading Time: 12 Minutes
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A Japanese mermaid is called a ningyo (人魚) or human fish. Today I’ll tell you about their history, the good, the bad, and the delicious!

Ningyo Japanese mermaid

Pre Intro

Hey hey, you’re listening to Uncanny Japan and I’m Thersa Matsuura and what comes to mind when I say the word mermaid?

Are you imagining a curvy, flaxen haired, golden-skinned woman with the voice of an angel, an iridescent tail a seashell bikini top?

Wrong! At least if you are in the seas off the Japanese coast that is. Here, if you hauled in your fishing net full of fish to find a mermaid mixed in with the bunch, you’d be greeted by a smallish, grotesque-looking creature, that may or may not have golden scales, but would more than likely have a monkey looking face and mouth filled tiny, sharp razor teeth. Snap snap. Not sexy or cute at all.

And don’t get me started on what would happen if you decided to slice it up and eat it. Okay, actually I will get to that in a minute. But first, mermaids in Japanese are called ningyo (人魚) or human fish and they’re all kinds of creepy and wonderful, so let’s learn more.

First Written About

Ningyo, Human Fish. So that’s the name you normally hear when someone is talking about mermaids in Japan. But there’s another word I just learned. Hatsugyo ( 髪魚). It’s written Hair Fish. Which is gross, but sort of spot on.

A hatsugyo is said to be related to the mermaid and there is an old story of a man catching one in a pond, taking it home, putting it in a big tub full of water with a lid on it, then going to sleep. That night the God of the pond appeared to him in a dream and said, what the heck, why would you steal an innocent pond creature and lock them up like that? When the man woke up and went to check on his new pet, the strange human hair fish, hatsugyo, was gone.

Also the indigenous Ainu had a type of mermaid they called the Ainu Sokki. She had horns!

When do you first find writings about the Japanese mermaid, ningyo? Why the Nihon Shoki, of course. Okay, actually before that the Chinese text Sankai Kyo (山海経), which I’ve seen translated as Classics of Mountains and Seas, and is thought to be penned, or brushed, way back in the 4th century BC has mention of a ningyo. It said it was a Person Fish that had the voice of a baby and legs. Anyway that text made its way to Japan, too, so there may be some influence there. Although I think Japan being so connected to the sea, didn’t need a lot of help in stumbling across mer-people.

Temple Near Me with Mermaid Mummy

But let’s talk for a moment about how I just discovered a temple near me that has a real live – and by live I mean dead – mermaid mummy! It does. But at them moment my prefecture, along with a lot of others, is under a state of emergency as all the hospitals are full, more and more people are getting sick, and vaccines are still not being given out to whomever wants them yet. But once I’m able to get there, you can bet I’m going and I’ll report back here.

The Prince and the Ningyo Mermaid

But it all starts about 1,400 years ago, way over in Shiga Prefecture, about a 3-hour drive from here, when Prince Shotoku was strolling alongside Biwa Lake. He was minding his own business when a mermaid pops out of the water and starts chatting him up. It’s saying how in a previous life it used to be a fisherman, but as payback for all the lives it took when it was a human, it was reborn as a mermaid. “Now I understand what a horrible thing I did. All that killing. So, please, I beg you, after I’m dead keep my ugly body – preferably mummified – and use it as a reminder to others, not to go around killing all the time.”

And after saying those words, the ningyo up and died.

I’m going to stop here and add that in the Japanese rendition that I’m reading of this legend, it doesn’t say if the lives the mermaid took while in fisherman form were fish lives or people lives. Because if fish lives, then, well, wouldn’t every fisherman be given the same karmic punishment? Thousands of fishermen reborn as mermaids? Or was he a particularly good fisherman who killed so many fish lives the gods were like, hol’ up?

And if it’s talking about people lives, then, what the hell dude. How many people did you kill and why, I mean you’re a fisherman, not a samurai or ninja or anything. That said I’ve never heard of a samurai or ninja being reborn as a mermaid for punishment either. Which begs the the question why have him reborn as a mermaid in the first place. If you want to teach this guy a lesson wouldn’t you banish him to one of those colorful Buddhist hells where you boil in cauldrons of blood for millions of years while getting stabbed repeatedly  by oni? If I remember correctly people are thrown into hell for a lot less than killing someone. I need answers.

Back to the story. So the hideous-looking old mermaid drops dead right then and there and the prince scoops it up and has a grand memorial service for it. Then he takes it to a temple to grant the poor little creature its last wish.


After it was enshrined in the temple, strange things began to happen. So the monks were like, maybe this creepy mermaid is cursed? And they handed it over to another temple. Where, well, weird things began happening there too. Time to pass the mermaid mummy on.

This continued for some quite a while until the mischievous spirit of the ningyo was said to finally have calmed down and it ended up in at the foot of Mount Fuji, at Tenshou Kyou (天照教本社) — which is actually a jinja or shrine, not a temple — there it has remained for more than a century.

You know who else resides near the foot of Mount Fuji? Me! Well, not at the foot. It’s an hour and drive. But that’s not far. It’s on my To Visit list, as soon as I can.

Good Luck or Bad Luck?

In general, here, the history and legends of ningyo are long and they have changed over the years. At first it seemed it was good luck to find one. Then later if you came across one, or found one washed up on the beach it portended bad luck, a storm or some other disaster. You’ll remember the amabie or amabiko, which falls into the mermaid category. She came and warned of danger but also said, Hey, put up my image and you’ll be spared. So a little of both there.

Two more quick tales

During the Edo Period (1603-1867) in what is now Toyama Prefecture there is a record that the townspeople had to use 450 guns to fight off an 11-meter long ningyo who had horns.

Another poor merperson was killed by a man in southern Fukui Prefecture while it lounged on a rock. After that the sea began to rumble and large earthquakes started to happen. So whoops.

The Feejee (Fiji) Mermaid

But you know what’s special about Japanese mermaids? They’re real. Well, there’s proof they existed. Kinda. Have you ever heard about or seen a Fiji Mermaid? A mummified little thing with a tale and teeth.

PT Barnum had one for awhile. It originally came from a sea captain named Samuel Barret Edes, who purchased it for 6,000 dollars in 1822 from Japanese sailors. It was thought to have been caught near the island of Fiji, hence the name. Captain Edes took this mummified creature to London, where it was shown in 1822, maybe longer. Eventually Captain Edes’ son ended up selling it to the Boston Museum in 1842. From there it went to New York City where PT Barnum rented it for $12.50 a week to put on display in his freak show.

In PT Barnum’s words: it is “an ugly dried up, black looking diminutive specimen about three feet long. Its mouth was open, its tail turned over, and its arms thrown up, giving the appearance of it having died in great agony.”

Now while the original, which  I read disappeared — thought to have burned up in one of the many fires that ravaged Barnum’s collections, but then somewhere else read that it didn’t it just moved on. Either way, it wasn’t the only one. Others appeared. And for 6,000 bucks a pop, I can see why. And not all of these ningyo were sold to foreign sailors. Some were shown and gawked at around Japan itself.

There was something in old Japan called a misemono which I’m going to talk about in a near future episode, but for now think Japanese carnival or freak show. It was here, these little creatures were a big creepy hit.

Two Types of Ningyo Mermaids in Japan

I also learned that in Japan — at far as mummified mermaids go — there were two types. The first type is sometimes called the Screaming Type. They stand upright balanced on the curve of their tales and have their hands on the sides of their face like Munch’s Scream pose. Really terrifying expressions.

After them a new type was made, I mean found. They are categorized as the crawling type. These ningyo are on their sides, holding themselves up with their arms, nice curvy tail behind. Their ribs and vertebra quite prominent. These ones now have big round holes where their eyes should be. This is because they were originally displayed with glass eyes that have been lost over the years. Although, there is one man, the artist James Ensor, who is supposed to own one that still has eyes. I mean glass eyes.

Anyway, these crawling type of ningyo are also called Japanese Monkey fish. Because, well, they were sometimes made by fusing together the tail of a carp with the torso of a monkey.

But! At least once when they were inspected by various scientist and experts in the field, it was found the teeth weren’t that of a simian. Monkey’s have incisors on the top and bottom. This thing didn’t! Could it be a real mermaid? they thought, until someone figured out it was most likely the teeth of a wrasse fish. Which is a big ol ocean fish with teeth.

Here’s another hilarious story. Okay, so these relatively modern day scientist have these mummified remains and are all cocky. Let’s x-ray this thing and see what it really is. So they do. And, yes, they find there is wire, wood, and clay all used inside to hold them together and stuff. But kwhat the mermaid makers also did was coil up cord inside the skull. Which when looked at on an x-ray looks just like a brain! So they nearly had a heart attack when they first saw that.

Folktale – Yao Bikuni

Okay, before I let you go, today I’ll end with a mention of the most famous ningyo story in Japan. You may have heard of it. It’s called Yao Bikuni.

The legend goes that a fisherman once caught a very strange fish. He’s never seen anything like it. So he took it home and invited over all his friends and family to try it.

Everyone waited while he was preparing the meal. One guest, however, was eager to see what this strange fish looked like and peeked into the kitchen. Holy crap. It had a human face!

He told all the others what he’d seen and told them not to eat it. They nodded seriously and said, got it.

The fisherman brought out the fish all cut up and on a platter and every feigned joy, plucked up a piece with their chopsticks and pretended to eat it while deftly hiding the horrid flesh away to dispose of later.

Well, there was one drunk at the party, as their always is. He did manage this task, but on returning home he was greeted by his daughter who was Otoochan, where’s my souvenir, what did you bring me? All he wanted to do was pass out on his futon so he reached in and pulled out the chunk of mermaid flesh and gave it to her.

She immediately popped it into her mouth and began to chew. Delicious! She said.

The old drunk was like crap and tried to make her stop, but too late. She had eaten it.

He kept an eye on her, thinking she’d be poisoned, but nothing happened. She grew up and became a nice lady and got married. Then things changed. She stopped aging. Her husband got old, sick and died, but she stayed young. So she married again. Same thing happened. This went on for a couple husbands and finally she was like, screw this, I’ll become a nun. Which she did. Living the rest of her life wandering through various countries until she returned to her hometown at 800 years old and died.

So the moral of the story is that if someone presents you with a human faced anything to feast on, you SHOULD eat it?

Thank you for everything you do! I’ll talk to you in two weeks.


Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura.

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About The Uncanny Japan Podcast

Speculative fiction writer, long-term resident of Japan and Bram Stoker Award finalist Thersa Matsuura explores all that is weird from old Japan—strange superstitions, folktales, cultural oddities, and interesting language quirks. These are little treasures she digs up while doing research for her writing.

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