An Introduction To Japanese Yōkai: Amabie and Amabiko

Amongst the numerous hobbies that I enjoy, is the study of Japanese history and culture. Nestled deep in Japan’s long history are countless tales and records involving the supernatural and extraordinary. The most striking are those that surround the Yōkai. Yōkai are spirits, demons, or otherwise supernatural entities. And they are numerous, popping up all over Japanese recorded history. Even powerful leaders like Toyotomi Hideyoshi have pondered their existence and meaning. Many Yōkai are perceived to be friendly or benign. Many are seen to be a bane to the people they come in contact with, often causing mischief and problems wherever they appear. Some are even seen as holy, and tied directly to the various gods in the Shinto religion. This series is an introduction into the very deep world of the Japanese supernatural.

Amabie and Amabiko


Amabie [pronounced: Ah Ma Bee Eh] is said to originate from the sea, and is something of a mystery. Even in the Yōkai studying community. Its body is something of a mishmash. The Yōkai’s legs are beast-like, only numbering three, and they are covered in hair or fur. Some images depict it with fish-like legs(still only three), though. Its torso is fish-like, covered in scales. Its head is somewhat humanoid, with long hair that stretches almost to the ground. Its mouth, is a beak. Amabie, also is said to emit a glow around its whole body, and the glow is bright enough to be seen from shore. This Yōkai has earned comparisons to mermaids of western folklore.

Image source. block print from middle of April 1846 depicting Amabie

Amabiko [pronounced: Ah Ma Bee Koh] also was said to originate from the sea. Conversely though, it’s body is almost completely ape-like in appearance. Unlike Amabie, with its partially scaly body, Amabiko’s whole body is covered in hair or fur. Interestingly though, its legs still only numbered three. Its face, again apelike, has round eyes and a large mouth. No beak. Various mentions of Amabiko state that it was spotted off-shore glowing, much like Amabie.

Image source. Amabiko from around the same time the above image was produced.

The forthcoming of Amabiko was said to bring with it a multi-layer prophecy. First would be a bountiful harvest season. Which was obviously a great thing. But the second part of the prophecy was that of a coming time of disaster and disease. Which is obviously not so great. Amabiko would tell all who listened, to spread the word of its prophecy. It would also instruct everyone to display a drawing of Amabiko in their homes as a ward against the coming disease.

The above was also said of Amabie. People would hand draw images of Amabie or Amabiko in times of disease and plague, then distribute them around their villages to be displayed in their homes. Newspapers even published images of these Yōkai with instructions to display them at home. 

While many Yōkai legends can be traced back to a single god, person, animal, being, or happening, the origins of Amabie and Amabiko are ultimately unknown. The locations where sightings of these two Yōkai occurred are pretty well known though. Amabie was said to have been seen near present day Kumamoto on the Island of Kyushu, in western Japan. While Amabiko was said to be fond of the Sea of Japan. Which stretches from Kyushu, up the entirety of main island of Honshu, and past the northern island of Hokkaido. Amabiko’s appearances, were reported as far north as modern day Niigata prefecture. Which is known for its rice harvests and sake production.

Both Yōkai only had a handful of appearances in total. But, while they were numerous, periods of plague and disease in history didn’t exactly happen on a regular basis, did they?

Amabie & Amabiko. A Case Of Mistaken Identity?

Much of the mystery surrounding these two Yōkai lay with their names. And people have contemplated these names for some time. The most glaring question would be, are they even different Yōkai at all? They both bring forth prophecies, and have similar traits, after all. To support this hypothesis, Amabie’s name comes into focus. It really is something of an enigma, and the name itself is actually thought to be something of a mistake or at least a misunderstanding.

In the Japanese written language the only difference between the two names is one character. The ‘Eh’ sounding character for Amabie, and the ‘Koh’ sounding character for Amabiko.

Amabie: could be written as – アマビ

Amabiko: could be written as – アマビ

You may or may not be able to read the above characters, but if you use your imagination you can surely tell that the last two characters in both could be seen as similar. The エ and コ. Particularly in the written form. All cultures have examples of “chicken-scratch” handwriting, and the Japanese are no different.

Away from the oddly similar names, you then have the differences in appearance. Which compounds the mystery, and possibly picks apart the whole “It is all a mistake” argument. Amabie resembling a fish(or perhaps a mermaid) with a beak. Amabiko resembling an ape. Some have theorized that all of these differences, name, appearance, etc may be attributed to regional tales or beliefs.

One regions “this” may be another regions “that”, and so on. There are cases of one Yōkai having multiple names depending on what part of Japan you are in.

People had many different ways of spelling Amabiko’s name in the formal Kanji writing. With each of those different spellings, comes different meanings. Though it is usually written in Katakana or Hiragana. Amabie, though, was almost always written in kana(hiragana or katakana).

Amabie In The Modern Age

The COVID-19 Connection

Though there were no known physical appearances of this Yōkai . Amabie made a resurgence in digital form as recently as 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic. This was largely due to the lore behind this Yōkai’s name. During the hardest days of the pandemic, Amabie’s picture began circulating around social media sites such as Twitter. People were doing as they were instructed to do all those years ago in legend, just in the modern digital form. They were spreading the image of Amabie to help stop the spread of the disease. Did it work? Who can say?

This resurgence of Amabie even garnered the attention of the news, with reports outside of Japan by the likes of outlets such as the NPR and BBC. The Japanese government even got in on the using of Amabie’s likeness to get safety information out to the masses by spreading health warnings and guidance with the Yōkai’s image prominently displayed.

A real image distributed by the Ministry of Health. Roughly translated as “Stop The Spread”. Using Amabie’s image to spread information and to try to help ward off the disease.

Here’s hoping Amabie(or Amabiko for that matter) doesn’t return to the limelight with any more prophecies of plague any time soon. I think we have seen enough for a lifetime or two, don’t you?

For further information about Yōkai, I highly suggest A website run by Matthew Meyer. He has studied Yōkai and Japanese folklore intensively, and has also released a series of books that he wrote, designed, and illustrated. All devoted to the subject. His books and website were a major source of information for this series, and I regularly reference them. They are:

[This post was originally published at Otherverse Games & Hobbies]

Click here for more Japanese Yōkai posts


All of these are true except for one:

Robert is: a Hobbyist, a Music Lover, an RPG Gamer, a Mustard Lover, Chaotic Neutral, a Japanese Speaker, a Veteran, an Otaku, a Table Tennis Player, an Anime Fan, an Aviation Professional, a New York Rangers Fan, a Chaos Lover With Loyalist Tendencies.

More about Robert | Robert’s contributions