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The Arts and Medicine
July 17, 2020

Amabié—A Japanese Symbol of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Neuropsychiatry, The University of Tokyo Hospital, Tokyo, Japan
  • 2Japan International Cooperation Agency, Tokyo, Japan
JAMA. Published online July 17, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12660

Amabié (pronounced a-ma-bee-ay), a legendary mermaid-like creature who is said to emerge from the sea to prophesize good harvests and epidemics,1 is trending in Japan as a popular symbol of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

The image has been part of Japanese culture since 1846 when in Higo Province (today’s Kumamoto Prefecture),1 according to legend, an unnamed officer went to investigate a strange light that had been appearing at sea. The officer encountered the strange creature who explained, “I live in the sea. My name is Amabié. Good harvest will continue for six years. At the same time disease will spread. Draw me and show me to the people as soon as possible,” before submerging. The official left a charming sketch and the story was printed and disseminated in kawaraban (woodblock-printed bulletins that were a kind of newspaper of the time featuring news, outrageous gossip, and rumors).2

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    1 Comment for this article
    Amabié of COVID-19 and Sadako of the Thousand Paper Cranes
    Michael McAleer, PhD( Econometrics), Queen's | Asia University, Taiwan
    In the delightfully heartwarming presentation in Arts and Medicine, the highly informed pictorial story about Amabié as a Japanese symbol of COVID-19 brings to mind the uplifting image of Sadako Sasaki.

    After being diagnosed at the age of two years as an innocent victim of leukemia from radiation caused by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Sadako was inspired to fold 1000 origami paper cranes (orizuru) by the Japanese legend that she would be granted a wish upon completion, a wish to live through her disease. 

    Sadako bravely survived for ten years after her life-threatening diagnosis.

    A graceful
    statue of Sadako holding a crane stands in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, or Genbaku Dome, as a symbolic prayer for peace on earth.

    Amabié might be seen as a parallel symbol in Japan and elsewhere as a prayer for manageable healthcare through the discovery of a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.