The Japanese ningyo, which translates as “human fish,” is a monstrous and magical equivalent to the Western mermaid. The ningyo’s first written account appears in a 7th century chronicle, The Nihongi. In folk tradition, the nature and appearance of the ningyo have changed over the years. Some descriptions involve an enormous fish with a hideous human face or head, while others include more human attributes, such as arms and fingers. Golden scales, a monkey mouth, and pointed teeth appear in many descriptions. Western influence has even led to a variation of the ningyo which looks like a seductive, dark-haired female from the waist up and a fish from the waist down. Generally, ningyos can not speak, but they can make beautiful, birdlike sounds.
Ningyos’ great fame lies in the magical powers of their bodies. Ningyo blood heals wounds. Eating ningyo meat grants immortality and youth. Whether this blood or flesh is offered willingly or taken by force dramatically changes the nature of the story.
A famous folktale, “Yao Bikuni,” involves a fisherman who brought home mermaid meat. As his companions guess the source, they avoid eating it, but by chance–in one version it is offered as a gift to a fisherman’s daughter and in another she takes it from the trash to avoid wasting food–a young girl eats the meat. In some versions she is a teen and ages no more, and in others she is a child and continues aging until she grows to about 15. The girl became a wandering nun and lived over 800 years. She was known as the 800 nun or the white nun–the second name was derived either from her white skin or her white hair. There are shrines around Japan honoring her.
Ningyos are also associated with the weather and fortune. Some stories say that if a fisherman catches a ningyo it will bring on terrible storms and misfortune, but if he throws her back he will be safe. Story variations include the devastation of entire communities due to ningyo transgressions. Similarly, taking the healing blood or meat of a mermaid by force also will bring devastating disasters. For these reasons, ningyos are to be utterly avoided.
One modern variation of this tale can be found in Rumiko Takahashi’s Mermaid Saga, which is available as manga and anime. Yuta is a fisherman from the 1400s who ate mermaid meat and became an unaging immortal. His companions who also ate the meat transformed into deformed ones. Yuta’s dear ones are frightened by his lack of aging. He discovers that when he dies he is miraculously reanimated. Yuta learns that his immortality is a curse rather than a blessing. He travels constantly, searching for a mermaid who might be able to make him human again. After 500 years he meets a woman who has eaten mermaid flesh and survived. Together they continue to search for a method that would allow them to grow old and die. Mermaid Saga is more horror than fairy tale, as monstrous humans and ningyos vie for youth and immortality. If you decide to seek out the story, check a source such as the Rumic World website to help you sort out the various versions of anime available. I found a copy of the out-of-print OVAs through rentanime.com.
Interestingly, contradictory evidence from some sources suggests that encountering an elusive ningyo would mean good fortune. In these sources the ningyo is described as helpful to man, protecting him from harm and offering beneficial magic freely. The ningyo is contrasted with water creatures from other cultures that seek to harm humans. These descriptions, however, are only found in encyclopedic sources non-specific to Japanese folklore and mythology.
Acres, Harley and Dylan Acres. “Mermaid’s Flesh.” Rumic World. 2002. <http://www.furinkan.com/mermaid/index.html>.
Bane, Theresa. Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology. Jefferson: McFarland, 2013.
Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism. Ed. Jacqueline Stone and Mariko Namba Walter. U. of Hawai’i Press, 2009.
Mermaid Forest. Dir. Takaya Mizutani. DVD. Manga Corp, 1991.
Meyer, Matthew. “Ningyo.” Yokai.com. 2013. <http://yokai.com/ningyo/>.
Poitras, Gilles. The Anime Companion: What’s Japanese in Japanese Animation? Berkely: Stone Bridge Press, 1999.
Rose, Carol. Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth. New York: Norton, 2000.