|Book(s)||Konjaku Hyakki Shūi|
Ningyo (人魚 or にんぎょ, Ningyo) is a fish-like creature from Japanese folklore. Anciently, it was described with a monkey’s mouth with small teeth like a fish’s, shining golden scales, and a quiet voice like a skylark or a flute. Its flesh is pleasant-tasting, and anyone who eats it will attain remarkable longevity. However, catching a ningyo was believed to bring storms and misfortune, so fishermen who caught these creatures were said to throw them back into the sea. A ningyo washed onto the beach was an omen of war or calamity.
Mermaids are known as ningyo in Japanese, but they are very different from the mermaids of Western tradition. Ningyo more closely resemble fish than humans, with a varying level of human-like features, ranging from just an ugly, deformed fish-like face, to an entire human torso with long, bony fingers and sharp claws. They can range in size from the size of a human child to the size of a large seal. Unlike the mermaids of the Atlantic and Mediterranean legends, ningyo from the Pacific and the Sea of Japan are hideous to behold, resembling more of an otherworldly nightmare than a seductive siren.
Mermaids resembling the breeds known throughout the West – with an attractive human torso and a piscine lower body – are not unheard of in the Japanese islands. Particularly since the end of the Edo period and the opening of Japan to the West, more and more Western-style Atlantic mermaids have been seen in Japanese waters. However, the most common Japanese mermaid is more beast than beauty.
Ningyo sightings go back to the earliest written histories of Japan. The first recorded mermaid sightings in Japan are found in the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest books of classical Japanese history, dating back to 619 CE. The flesh of a ningyo is believed to grant eternal life and youth to those who eat it, and thus it is the subject of many folk tales. However, it carries with it a danger that most people are not willing to risk. Ningyo can place a powerful curse on humans who try to wound or capture them, and some legends tell of entire towns that were swallowed by earthquakes or tidal waves after a foolish fisherman brought home a ningyo in one of his catches. While their grotesque appearance and supernatural powers make them an intriguing subject, they are best avoided at all costs.
One of the most famous folk stories concerning ningyo is called Yao Bikuni (八百比丘尼, "eight-hundred (years) Buddhist priestess") or Happyaku Bikuni. The story tells how a fisherman who lived in Wakasa Province once caught an unusual fish. In all his years fishing, he had never seen anything like it, so he invited his friends over to sample its meat.
One of the guests, however, peeked into the kitchen, noticed that the head of this fish had a human face, and warned the others not to eat it. So when the fisherman finished cooking and offered his guests the ningyo's grilled flesh, they secretly wrapped it in paper and hid it on their persons so that it could be discarded on the way home.
But one man, drunk on sake, forgot to throw the strange fish away. This man had a little daughter, who demanded a present when her father arrived home, and he carelessly gave her the fish. Coming to his senses, the father tried to stop her from eating it, fearing she would be poisoned, but he was too late and she finished it all. But as nothing particularly bad seemed to happen to the girl afterwards, the man did not worry about it for long.
Years passed, and the girl grew up and was married. But after that she did not age any more; she kept the same youthful appearance while her husband grew old and died. After many years of perpetual youth and being widowed again and again, the woman became a nun and wandered through various countries. Finally she returned to her hometown in Wakasa, where she ended her life at an age of 800 years.