The Folklore of Japanese Mermaids

Mermaids are usually depicted as beautiful women who bewitch sailors into the watery depths. In Japan, mermaids are often translated as “human fish” or ningyo. They are fish-like creatures from Japanese folklore. Supposedly, a ningyo has shiny golden scales, a monkey’s mouth with small teeth similar to a fish’s, and a voice that resembles a skylark or a flute. Its flesh when eaten is delicious, and anyone who eats it will live longer than usual.


The Japanese believe that if a ningyo is caught, it will bring misfortune and storms. Because of this, many fishermen who find these creatures caught in their nets throw them back into the ocean. It is also believed that if a ningyo washes ashore, it is an omen of war or calamity.

Japanese folktales tell us the mermaid first appeared to Prince Shotoku at Lake Biwa. When the prince was on the brink of death, it was able to tell him its sad story. The creature had once been a fisherman who entered prohibited waters. As punishment, he turned into a hideous animal. The ningyo, wanting to atone for his transgression, asked the prince to build a temple to display his remains as an example on the sacredness of life. The temple is now known as Tenshou-Kyousha Shrine and houses the mummified remains of the mermaid. The mermaid mummy is cared for by the Shinto order at Fujinomiya, near Mount Fuji.

 A ningyo or kairai (“sea lightning”) claimed to be caught in “Yomo-no-ura, Hōjō-ga-fuchi, Etchū Province.

Another story tells us about a ningyo named Yao Bikuni, an 800-year-old Buddhist priestess.  A fisherman from Wakasa Province caught an unusual fish, so he invited his friends to partake of his catch. One of his guests snuck a peek into the kitchen and was astounded to see that the fish had a head of a human. He warned the other visitors about what he saw and to avoid eating the fish. When the host finished cooking and offered his guests the fish, they secretly wrapped it in paper ready to be thrown away when they got home.

However, one guest had too much sake and forgot to throw away his piece of the strange fish. This man had a young daughter who demanded a present when her father arrived home. The man, without thinking, gave her the fish. When he realized what he had done, he tried to stop his daughter from eating it but he was too late. Nothing out of the ordinary happened to his daughter at first and he forgot about it after awhile.

Years passed and the young girl grew up and got married. The daughter after marriage never seemed to age while her husband grew old and died. After many years of not growing a day older and being widowed yet again, the woman became a nun and wandered around the world. Finally, she came back home to Wakasa where she finally passed away at 800 years old.