Ningyo: Vintage Japanese Mermaids

On March 23, 2014 by Tim Newman

Ningyo - Vintage Mermaid Keisuke Ito 2

In Japanese folklore they have a creature called the ningyo. Its closest relative in European tradition is the mermaid. But these guys look quite a bit more frightening than Ariel:

Ningyo - Vintage Mermaid 19th C myth

According to tradition these ningyo have a monkey’s mouth with small fish-like teeth, shiny golden scales, and a quiet voice like a skylark or a flute. Its flesh tastes good, and anyone who eats it will live for hundreds of years.

On the down side, catching a ningyo was believed to bring storms and misfortune, so fishermen who caught these creatures would normally throw them back into the sea. A ningyo washed onto the beach was an omen of war or calamity.

Ningyo - Vintage Mermaid scary

The most famous folk tale involving the ningyo is called Yao Bikuni or Happyaku Bikuni. It goes like this:

A fisherman caught a huge fish, the likes of which he had never seen before. That evening he had some pals round for dinner to share the feast. One of the guests peeked into the kitchen and saw that the fish had a human face. This perturbed the guest who told the others not to eat it.

Ningyo - Vintage Mermaid old drawings


The guests heeded her warning and instead of eating the fish they hid it about their person to trash once they’d left. One guy was smashed on sake and he forgot to lob the mermaid supper away. In the morning he remembered and went to find the human fish morsels but it was too late, his daughter had scoffed it all down.

Ningyo - Vintage Mermaid fish teeth

After a while the man forgot about it as there seemed to be no ill effects for his daughter. Everything seemed fine. His daughter married and it was soon after this that she started to realise she wasn’t aging. Her husband died, she remarried and was re-widowed and this went on and on. Torn apart with sadness she became a nun and travelled from country to country seeking solace that never came. She ended up taking her own life at the grand old age of 800.

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Ningyo - Vintage Mermaid 1800s

So let that be a lesson to you: don’t eat anything with a human face.

In Okinawa it’s still  believed that eating ningyo would be unlucky. Tellingly, they also won’t eat dugong. The picture below depicts a mermaid that was captured in Toyama Bay. According to the accompanying text, the creature measured 10.6 meters (35 ft) long.

Ningyo - Vintage Mermaid embossed

Even the respected natural history artist, Keisuke Ito, who drew many a sea creature included them in his books alongside real life animals:

Ningyo - Vintage Mermaid Keisuke Ito

So, in conclusion. Mermaids probably were real at some point but they’ve died out now. FACT.


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