Ukiyo-e, 1808, Ningyo, Katsushika Hokusai (Source: Wikipaintings)
Ningyo (人魚, “human fish”, often translated as “mermaid”) is a fish-like creature from Japanese folklore, that according to Wikipedia, from ancient sources, had “a monkey’s mouth with small teeth like a fish’s, shining golden scales, and a quiet voice like a skylark or a flute”.
A ningyo from Toriyama Sekien’s Konjaku Hyakki Shūi. Source: Wikipedia
The Obakemono Project describes the ningyo thus:
“The mermaid of old Japan is more reminiscent of the infamous “Fiji mermaid” hoax than the beautiful fish-girls popular today, looking something like a cross between a monkey and a carp. But despite its grotesque appearance, the ningyo’s scales are said to shine like gold, and like the traditional Western mermaid it is a romantically tragic creature. According to legend, a ningyo cannot speak, but its voice has a pleasant sound like a flute, and if it ever sheds tears it will be transformed into a human. But it is most famous for its flesh, a pleasant-smelling and delicious meat that is said to make anyone who eats it nigh-immortal.”
According to Japanese Sea Deities (The Arcane Archive), the ningyo is a Japanese mermaid goddess who cries white pearl tears. And that it was said if women could capture her and take a bite out of her, they would have eternal youth and beauty.
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 also an omen of war or calamity. In Okinawa, people said eating ningyo would be unlucky, and particularly avoid eating the dugong.
The folktale of Yao Bikuni
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. — Source: Ningyo (Wikipedia)
Here’s another version below of Yao Bikuni by the Iwaki (?) Board of Education (translation by The Fresh Prince of Iwaki):
This is a tale from the town of Tabito called “the Mermaid Long-Life Medicine”. Once upon a time, a man held a feast on the night of Koshinko, and everyone in the village came.
First it is important to understand Koshinko. Inside the human body, there is a bug called “Sanshi”. This bug watches every crime that a person does. Every 60 days, on the night of Koshin, the Sanshi bug goes to the Emperor’s house and reports all crimes that have been done. Depending on the crime, the Emperor shortens the lifespan of the evil-doer. When the night of Koshinko comes around, people would gather together, drink alcohol, and frolic about all night without sleeping. Old farming villages believed that doing all of this would prevent the Sanshi bug from reporting anything to the Emperor.
At the Koshinko feast, the food prepared by the host turned out to be some type of mermaid meat. The guests were quite shocked and thought that is was a very odd. Without eating a single bite, all of the guests wrapped their servings in a piece of paper and brought it home with them.
Everyone threw away their portion of this mysterious meat on the way home or after arriving home. But, at one of the homes, a teenage girl found the meat. Thinking to herself, “What a waste! I wonder what it is,” she sneakily ate it.
After eating this, the girl’ appearance did not change, and she lived a long, long life. Before long, she became known as “Yao Bikuni”. “Yao” comes from her living until she was 800 years old; “Bikuni” implies that she was a nun. Depending on the region, she is also called “Happyaku Bikuni” or “Shira Bikuni” (“the White Nun”). Many accounts of the half-human, half-fish mermaid meat were passed down from generation to generation as the “Medicine of Youth and Longevity”.
One by one, one after another, her family and friends began to pass away, but no matter how many years passed, the girl would continue aging without a change in her appearance.
Before long, any happiness she had in her life turned into emptiness and suffering. Not able to take the suffering anymore, she shaved off all of her hair and become a nun. Soon after, she left on a journey to travel around the world. But she never found happiness in her life.
As more time passed, everyone she had ever known had died. She came to hate her unchanging, youthful appearance. To make things worse, people who saw her began calling her a ghost. She felt so backed into a corner that she couldn’t endure living anymore. At the age of 800, the girl left this world, despite being immortal and ageless. Simply, her will to live ceased to be.
“I want to be young forever.” “I don’t want to be old.” “I want to live just a little bit longer.” Many people have these kind of desires, but with time all people grow old. After some time, death will pay us all a visit.
The story of Yao Bikuni is meant for those who fear death, teaching them that “living a long life does not guarantee happiness.” Having a life with an end is the most appropriate thing for us. We should take to heart that fate is not pre-determined and live our lives appreciating each day we have. By doing this and living a healthy lifestyle, we can possibly maintain our beauty as we grow old. — Yao Bikuni (trns. by The Fresh Prince of Iwaki)
Postulating possible mythical derivative sources or affiliations or folkloric connections with other parts of the world:
While the monkey-carplike fishlike ningyo has closer affinities with Siberian or Pacific versions, the ningyo goddess that cried pearl tears, has obvious affinities with the Chinese mermaid:
A 15th-century compilation of quotations from Chinese literature tells of a mermaid who “wept tears which became pearls”. An early 19th-century book entitled Jottings on the South of China contains two stories about mermaids. In the first, a man captures a mermaid on the shore of Namtao island. She looks human in every respect, except that her body is covered with fine hair of many colours. She is unable to speak, but the man takes her home and marries her. Upon his death, the mermaid returns to the sea where she had been found. In the second story, a man sees a woman lying on the beach while his ship was anchored offshore. Upon closer inspection, the woman appears to have webbed feet and hands. She is carried to the water and expresses her gratitude toward the sailors before swimming away. — Mermaid (Wikipedia)
Amphitrite (‘The Great Embracer’ — pre-Hellenic sea Goddess and wife of Poseidon, Greek/Hellenic sea God); Nereids the Greek nymphs fathered by Nereus (‘Old Man of the Sea’ — Hellenic sea God); Atargatis (Syrian mermaid Goddess) – in the Hellenized fish-bodied form, Atargatis was known as Derketo, who was a nymph changed into a fish after having become pregnant by a shepherd boy
Ben-Varry (Manx Mermaids) and Dinny-Mara (Manx Mermen) British Isle of Man; Lir (Irish sea God); Merrows / the Murdhuachas (Irish); Blue men of the Minch and the Roane (Scottish); Caesg (Celtic — part trout or salmon); Neck (Scandinavian fresh and salt water Mermaids); Merrymaids (Cornish Mermaids); Meerfraulein and Wasserfrau (German)
Nuwa and Fuxi (amphibious or mer-like god and goddess of ancient western China)
The Amphibious Gods (Crystalinks)
Primeval Great Mother Dragon Goddess NuWa Tiamat excerpt from Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess