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  • Writer's pictureJason Khoh

Unraveling the Mysteries of Mermaids in Japan: A Dive into the World of 人魚 (Ningyo)

Happy International Mermaid Day! As the undisputed number-one Japanese translation agency, Mochiwa Mochiya Pty Ltd, is here to celebrate this special occasion by diving into the captivating world of mermaids in Japan. We'll explore the historical significance of mermaids, the etymology of the word 人魚 (ningyo), and other fascinating facts about these mythical creatures in Japanese culture. So grab your snorkel and let's dive in!


The Ningyo – Japan's Unique Mermaid

Ningyo, the mythical Japanese mermaid, depicted in traditional Japanese art

Mermaids have been a significant part of folklore around the world, including Japan. However, the traditional Japanese mermaid, known as ningyo (人魚), is quite different from its Western counterpart. Comprised of the characters for ‘person’ and ‘fish,’ ningyo were once believed to grant immortality if their flesh was consumed. These human-fish hybrids possessed a monkey's mouth and were often seen as portents of war or calamity, rather than beautiful, alluring creatures.


The Tale of Prince Shotoku and the Ningyo


One of the most famous ningyo stories involves Prince Shotoku (574-622), who encountered a ningyo at Lake Biwa. This ningyo was once a fisherman, transformed into the hideous creature as punishment for trespassing in protected waters. As his dying wish, the ningyo asked Prince Shotoku to absolve him of his crimes and establish a temple to display his mummified remains as a reminder of life's sanctity. Today, you can find these remains at the Tenshou-Kyousha Shrine in Fujinomiya, where Shinto priests continue to care for them.


The Westernization of the Japanese Mermaid


The modern image of the mermaid in Japan has evolved significantly since the early 20th century, influenced by the influx of American culture and the translation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. Japanese writers and illustrators, such as Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, introduced the Western mermaid concept in their works, eventually merging it with the traditional ningyo image. This resulted in the popularization of the more feminine and alluring Mameido (マーメード) in Japanese pop culture.

Bronze statue of a Western-style mermaid at Okinawa's Moon Beach, symbolizing local legends

Mermaids in Okinawa and Popular Culture


The newly westernized mermaid now holds a place in popular culture and local legends, such as the bronze statue of a mermaid on Okinawa's Moon Beach. According to local lore, beautiful mermaids have saved people from drowning in these treacherous waters. This enchanting image has become a staple in anime and manga, often exploring themes of enchantment and the emotional bond between humans and mermaids.


Ponyo – A Modern Mermaid Tale from Studio Ghibli


In 2008, Studio Ghibli, the renowned Japanese animation studio led by Hayao Miyazaki, released Ponyo, a film that beautifully captures the magic and allure of mermaids in contemporary Japanese culture. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, Miyazaki's interpretation breathes new life into the mermaid mythos while still paying homage to Japan's rich folklore heritage.


The film tells the story of Ponyo, a goldfish who dreams of becoming a human after befriending a young boy named Sosuke. As Ponyo's magical powers grow, she transforms into a ningyo-like creature, blurring the lines between human and fish. This enchanting narrative explores themes of love, friendship, and the delicate balance between humanity and the natural world.


Ponyo is a testament to the continued fascination with mermaids in Japanese culture, reimagining traditional ningyo folklore in a modern context. The film's vibrant animation, heartfelt storytelling, and captivating characters have made it a beloved classic, further solidifying the mermaid's place in contemporary Japanese pop culture.


As we celebrate International Mermaid Day, let's not forget the contributions of visionary artists like Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in keeping the mermaid's enchanting spirit alive for future generations to enjoy.

Ponyo, a modern representation of mermaids in Japan, featured in Studio Ghibli's animated film

The history of mermaids in Japan is rich and diverse, reflecting the unique cultural beliefs and evolving perspectives on these mythical creatures. From the traditional ningyo to the westernized Māmeido and the adorable Ponyo, Japanese mermaids have captured the imagination of countless generations. As we celebrate International Mermaid Day, let us remember the enchanting tales and fascinating history of these captivating beings.


At Mochiwa Mochiya Pty Ltd, we pride ourselves on our deep understanding of Japanese culture and our ability to bridge linguistic and cultural gaps. If you need translation or interpreting services that truly capture the essence of your message, don't hesitate to get in touch with us. Our team of expert linguists is ready to help you make waves in the world of communication! 🧜‍♀️🌊🇯🇵


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