Mermaids. The word conjures up images of magical half- human, half -fish beings with beautiful maiden bodies complete with angelic faces ringed by magnificent, flowing hair, all positioned atop elegant fish tails. These types of beings have been common fixtures in much folklore, myth, and legend around the world. Sailors from every corner of the Earth have long reported seeing and being enchanted by these enigmatic creatures in the waters of the far flung corners of the Earth.
Mermaid lore is as varied as the many cultures it originates from. As a nation surrounded by the sea, it is perhaps no surprise that Japan too has its own long tradition of mermaids. These creatures are known to the Japanese as ningyo (人魚), literally “human fish,” as well as gyojin (魚人), meaning “fish human,” and hangyo-jin, (半魚人）or “half-fish human.” Stories of fish-like humanoid beings have been reported from the waters around Japan for centuries. It is said that the first recorded account of mermaids in Japan dates all the way back to the year 619, during the reign of Empress Suiko, when one was allegedly captured in Japanese waters and brought before the court of the Empress herself. The creature was allegedly kept in a makeshift tank for the entertainment of visitors to the court.
Physical descriptions of Japanese mermaids vary, however they generally differ in appearance from the traditional image of the beautiful maiden torsos with fish tails common to Western mermaid lore. Before the influence of foreign traditions somewhat changed the image of mermaids in Japan, the Japanese Ningyo actually had little in common with their Western counterparts, both in appearance and behavior.
Although they were often indeed described as having full heads of hair, the Ningyo were typically depicted as more bestial, inhuman, and somewhat grotesque looking than the more familiar European variety, with an appearance more like a cross between a fish and a monkey than that of a beautiful woman. Often the mermaids had barely human scaly arms ending in twisted claws. In many local traditions, these Japanese mermaids had no appendages at all, and were often said to be just a humanoid, ape-like, or reptilian head with sharp teeth upon a fish body instead of possessing a full human torso. The heads were sometimes depicted as being misshapen, horned, or possessing prominent fangs or rows of pointed teeth like those of a shark. Some stories tell of a more relatively normal looking human head, only attached directly to a full fish body. In other traditions, the mermaids retained a form reminiscent of the more familiar version of Western mermaids, but with a more demonic, sinister appearance or having distorted features. The more humanoid Japanese mermaids were sometimes said to have alabaster white skin and high, musical voices that sounded like a skylark or flute.
Many mystical qualities and magical abilities were attributed to the mermaids of Japan. The Ningyo were believed to cry tears of pearl, and it was thought that eternal youth and beauty would be imparted upon any human being who consumed a mermaid’s flesh. Many legends tell of women eating the flesh of a Ningyo and miraculously ceasing to age, or reverting to a younger, more beautiful form. Like many Japanese folkloric animals, merfolk were also said to have shape-shifting abilities. Mermaids taking on the form of human beings or other creatures are often mentioned in much folklore concerning the creatures. For instance, in the 1870s lighthouse keepers at the Cape Nosaapu Lighthouse in northeast Hokkaido believed that the local mermaids could turn into deadly jellyfish. These mermaids were thought to masquerade as beautiful, kimono clad women on shore that would seduce and lure men into the sea, upon which they would transform into giant jelly fish and kill anyone foolish enough to have gone for a swim with them.
For many Japanese in earlier eras, as in other parts of the world, mermaids were not mere figments of the imagination or the stories of crazed fishermen, but rather a very real feature of the ocean. Japanese fishermen accepted them as a part of everyday life and were well acquainted with them, with sightings being fairly commonplace. Throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, it was not considered particularly unusual for fishermen to tell of seeing these enigmatic beings swimming alongside their boats or attempting to steal fish from their nets.
More relatively modern accounts exist as well, such as a case in 1929, when a fisherman by the name of Sukumo Kochi captured a fish-like creature in his net that had a human face upon the head of a dog. The creature broke free of the net and escaped. During World War II, mermaids were frequently reported in Japanese waters, in particular the warm seas off Okinawa. There were even reports of Japanese navy personnel opening fire on and killing mermaids, but no bodies were ever recovered. Some reports of mermaids frolicking in the ocean were made by fairly high-ranking military officials, so it is difficult to know what to make of such reports.
Western explorers also gave accounts of seeing mermaids in Japanese waters. In 1610, a British captain allegedly saw one such mermaid from a pier at the port of Sentojonzu. The creature was cavorting in the water nearby and reportedly came quite close to the pier where the bewildered captain stood. The mermaid was described as being the head of a woman atop a body that was all fish, with a prominent dorsal fin running down the middle of the upper body. Sea traders from the west would make note of mermaids in Japanese waters on many occasions in their logbooks, and some captains even made an effort to avoid known Ningyo haunts so as not to come across the often mischievous creatures.
Not only were Ningyo regularly sighted by various seafarers, but tales abound of them being captured by fishermen all over the country, either by accident or by those looking to gain the purported immortality bestowing meat. Throughout the 1700s and 1800s in particular, mermaids were often reportedly brought in by fishermen around Japan. The captured mermaids in some cases were said to have the ability to speak, and would try to trick their captors or talk the fishermen into releasing them. Although many of these mermaids managed to break free or talk their way out of trouble, not all were so lucky.
Among the Ningyo successfully caught by fishermen, some were said to be exhibited in sideshows. In 18th and 19th century Japan, sideshow carnivals known as misemono were all the rage among the populace. These events were like festivals of sorts that featured a wide range of attractions such as acrobatics, dance, fortune telling, and arts and crafts. One very popular type of attraction were exhibitions of strange natural phenomena and exotic animals collected from the far corners of the Earth. These were typically booths comprised of a “cabinet of curiosities” type exhibitions showcasing bizarre animals, plants, and other exotic wonders of nature from all over the world. These booths can be seen as being in many ways similar to the circus sideshows of the U.S. and Europe, attracting curious onlookers with their displays of the mysterious, strange, and sometimes downright freakish. The misemono were known for drawing huge crowds of people who would gawk at the bizarre menageries.
One of the biggest draws of the misemono sideshows was when mermaids were displayed. These typically dead and preserved specimens drew in huge crowds of people clamoring to get a glimpse of a real mermaid, and many of the exhibitors became wealthy from such shows. Whether any of these specimens were in fact real mermaids or not is not known for sure, but they certainly were quite real to those that saw them. Most common people of the time already considered mermaids to be very real, and seeing one in front of their eyes only reaffirmed this notion.
The success and popularity of the misemono sideshow mermaids increased the demand for such attractions. A significant amount of money was changing hands, and some enterprising fishermen consequently began to see an opportunity to make some good extra money by crafting their own mermaid specimens. After all, why go out and go through the trouble of catching a real mermaid when you could make your own? It was not unprecedented for such trickery to occur with the misemono side-shows, and there were often altered animals such as dogs or monkeys painted or fitted with prosthetics to make them appear to be something more mixed in with the genuine specimens of exotic species. Typically these fake mermaids were cobbled together from the upper torso of monkeys and the lower bodies of fish, as well as all manner of animal parts such as fur, skin, and membranes, joined in such a way as to avoid detection by the naked eye. These fakes turned out to turn quite a profit, and the increasing presence of more Westerners in Japan willing to pay exorbitant prices for these specimens only increased the booming trade in fake mermaids.
With regards to trying to discern any grain of truth behind these first mermaid exhibits, it is unfortunate that the one thing Japan became known for concerning mermaids was their exquisite and unrivalled ability to manufacture them. The Japanese, long known for mermaid exhibitions in their own country, soon became renowned overseas for being master craftsmen of fake mermaids, and there is much evidence to suggest the regular manufacture of such curios.
It may sound as if anyone who could be convinced by a such a monstrosity as a monkey sewn to a fish must be extremely gullible, but that would be underestimating the skill and ingenuity some Japanese displayed in the making of these creations. At the time, many Japanese fake mermaids were incredibly convincing to the majority of those who saw them, and even some experts were confounded. An issue of The American Journal of Science and Arts from 1863 describes the incredible craftsmanship of these fake mermaids, which could fool even trained scientists, thus:
We should judge that the Japanese must have considerable knowledge of the lower animals to be able to produce factitious congeries, so nearly agreeing with nature and so well calculated as to deceive even practiced naturalists.
As their popularity increased, Japanese mermaids began to pop up all over the place. A typical description of a Japanese-made mermaid is written of in the book Curiosities of Natural History by Francis Trevelyan Buckland, in this letter from 1866 from a correspondent of Land and Water.
Captain Cuming, R.N., of Braidwood Terrace, Plymouth, has returned from Yokohama, bringing with him a great variety of curiosities. Amongst them is a mermaid. The head is that of a small monkey, with prominent teeth; a little thin wool on the head and upper parts; long attenuated arms and claws, below which the ribs show very distinctly; beyond these latter the skin of a fish is so neatly joined that it is hardly possible to detect where the fish begins and and the monkey leaves off. The fish has large scales, spines on the back, a square tail, and appears to be a species of chub. It is quite perfect except the head, which only seems to have been removed to make the joint. Total length about sixteen inches; color of monkey, dull slate; the fish, its natural colour; and the whole in excellent preservation.
It’s interesting to note the praise given to the craftsmanship on display, a common sentiment regarding the fake mermaids of Japan. Also noteworthy is the small size of the specimen. Most Japanese-made mermaids were far from human size, with most being under three feet long. Another well known specimen was shown at the Oriental Warehouse of Farmer and Rogers in Paris that was only 25 inches long. It was described by one observer as follows:
The lower half of her body is made up of the skin and scales of a fish of the carp family, neatly fastened to a wooden body. The upper part of the mermaid is in the attitude of a sphinx, leaning upon its elbows and forearm. The arms are long and scraggy, and the fingers attenuated and skeleton-like. The nails are formed of little bits of ivory or bone. The head is about the size of a small orange, and the face has a laughing expression of good nature and roguish simplicity. I cannot say much for the expression of her ladyship’s mouth, which is a regular gape, like the clown’s mouth at a pantomime: behind her lips we see a double row of teeth, one rank being in advance of the other, like a regiment of volunteers drawn up in a line. the hind teeth are conical, but the front ones project like diminutive tusks. I am nearly certain as I can be that these are the teeth of a young cat-fish- a hideous fish that one sometimes sees hanging up in the fishmonger’s shops in London. Her ears are very pig-like, and certainly not elegant, and her nose decidedly snub. The coiffeur is submarine, and undoubtedly not Parisian: it would, in fact, be none the worse for a touch of brush and comb.
The observer later goes on to describe the following:
At the back of her head we see a series of nobs, which run down the back till they join with a bristling row of 24 spines- evidently the spines of the dorsal fin of the carp like fish. The ribs are exceedingly prominent.
An issue of the Saturday Magazine of June 4th, 1836 describes another such specimen that was displayed in a glass case in London that had:
“the skin of the head and shoulders of a monkey, which was attached to the dried skin of a fish of the salmon kind with the head cut off, and the whole was stuffed and highly varnished, the better to deceive the eye.”
Although this particular mermaid was allegedly taken by a Dutch crew from a native Malacca boat, it is most likely that it was Japanese-made due to its deceptive realism and the apparent high quality of the craftsmanship.
Many of the craftsmen of these faked mermaids were exceedingly clever and creative in their design, with the artists using all manner of various animal parts and often taking great artistic license with their creations, using highly guarded secret techniques that were thus passed down from master to mentor. One specimen shown at Picadilly in London was found to be made up of a fish tail, ape body, the jaws of a wolf fish, the skull of an ape, and the fur of a fox. Some even had wings attached that were apparently fashioned from those of bats. Again, the quality of construction was typically so ingenious as to require very careful examination and a keen eye to discover even the vaguest signs of human tampering.
It was quite common for Japanese mermaid specimens to be carried around in special wooden boxes. One such box that contained a mermaid had an inscription in Japanese claiming that the specimen had been captured and kept alive for two days before dying, suggesting that live specimens were sometimes obtained and exhibited as well. Indeed, as spectacular as the exhibitions of stuffed specimens were at the time, there was even at least one case of a purported live Japanese mermaid put on display. In 1825, a supposedly living mermaid from Japan was shown at Bartholemew’s Fair in London. The attraction brought in droves of amazed, gawking onlookers who could not believe their eyes. The creature seemed truly spectacular until closer inspection determined that the “mermaid” was in fact a woman with the skin of a fish painstakingly, artfully, and no doubt uncomfortably, stitched to her skin.
Perhaps the most famous faked mermaid in the world was undoubtedly of Japanese design. In 1842, a purported mermaid was brought to PT Barnum- of The Barnum and Bailey Circus fame- by a Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum. Apparently, the specimen had been bought from a sailor whose father had purchased it in 1817 from those who claimed it had been captured by a Japanese fisherman in his net. Although Barnum was well aware that this mermaid was a particularly well made fake, he nevertheless saw the acquisition as an opportunity to fire up the public imagination, and intended it as a way to awaken curiosity about the wonders of the natural world while of course making some money in the process. Through an ingenious advertising campaign which included much hype and posters promising a beautiful half woman, half fish, the attraction became a sensation. Ever the showman, Barnum even concocted an elaborate story of how the mermaid had been captured in the exotic, faraway Fiji Islands, hence the name it was given; “The Fiji Mermaid,” also known as “FeeJee Mermaid.”.
The posters of pretty mermaids with fair skin and flowing hair that Barnum used to great effect in his publicity campaign were far from accurate, as the actual specimen on display was a grotesque abomination that had little in common with human beings, with one observer once describing it as “an incarnation of ugliness.” PT Barnum describes in his own words his FeeJee mermaid in his autobiography:
The spine of the fish proceeded in a straight line to the base of the skull- the hair of the animal growing several inches down on the shoulders of the fish, and the application of a microscope absolutely revealed what seemed to be minute fish scales lying in myriads amidst the hair. The teeth and formation of the fingers and hands differed materially from those of any monkey or orang-out-ang ever discovered, while the location of the fins was different from those of any species of the fish tribe known to naturalists. The animal was an ugly, dried-up, black looking, and diminutive specimen, about 3 feet long. It’s mouth was open, its tail turned over, and its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.
The gruesome appearance of the mermaid and the shocking difference between the actual exhibit and what had been spectacularly falsely advertised did little to staunch the flocks of people with morbid curiosity coming to get a look at it. Barnum’s FeeJee mermaid made him an absolute ton of money. This was only partly due to Barnum’s marketing savvy. The mermaid itself tended to instill a certain morbid fascination as it was extremely realistic looking and incredibly convincing to those who saw it at the time, despite its undeniable ugliness. This remarkable realism was such that people continued to come and gawk at it even after it was debunked as a fake and widely considered to be a hoax. Barnum’s mermaid in particular became so famous, that indeed it is this very exhibition that coined the term “FeeJee mermaid,” by which all gaffes of this type are generally known today.
The German ethnologist Ph. F. von Siebold claimed to have traced the origin of PT Barnum’s infamous FeeJee mermaid specimen in his book, Manners and Customs of the Japanese in the Nineteenth Century. Von Seibold had come to the conclusion that the specimen was identical to one shown around Europe in 1822-23, at venues such as the Tuft Coffee house on St. James’ Street in London, where three to four hundred people a day had been coming to see it. This specimen was reportedly caught in a Japanese fisherman’s net, and brought to London by an American sea captain by the name of Samuel Barrett Eades. The mermaid had made these venues a small fortune. Von Seibold was convinced that this specimen was crafted in 1810 by an ingenious Japanese fisherman, and that it, or an exact copy of it, was the very same one that had eventually wound up in America with Barnum after being sold to a Dutch company and changing hands several times.
Barnum tended to agree with von Seibold’s assertions. He had been well aware since the beginning that his FeeJee mermaid was faked, and even wrote that he suspected it was of possible Japanese design. While expounding on its workmanship, Barnum wrote:
Assuming, what is no doubt true, that the mermaid was manufactured, it was a most remarkable specimen of ingenuity and untiring patience. For my part I really had scarcely cared at the time to form an opinion of the origin of this creature, but it was my impression that it was the work of some ingenious Japanese, Chinaman, or other eastern genius.
Indeed Barnum was convinced that many of the other supposed mermaid bodies on display at such venues world wide were of Japanese manufacture.
The praise and admiration, as well as the high profile of their work became somewhat a source of pride for the Japanese who crafted these mermaids. As the worldwide curiosity in Japanese mermaids took off, these craftsmen sought to create increasingly more believable specimens. Some of the Japanese who made or owned the mermaids wished the creations to be accepted as real, and were sensitive to the critical eye aimed at their work by some skeptical Westerners. John George Wood recalled an incident with one such disgruntled owner in his book Trespassers- Marine and Aquatic Trespassers.
Yet utterly absurd as they are, there are many persons who firmly believe in them. I once had a narrow escape from a personal assault at the hands of the owner of a Japanese mermaid. I saw it in his shop- a fishmonger’s; stepped in to look at it, and made some remarks upon the ingenuity with which wire had been made to imitate ribs and other bones. I thought that I was paying a compliment, but very soon found that the sooner I was out of the shop, the better it would be.
Japanese mermaids were indeed serious business for those who made them. It almost seems as if the trade in faked mermaids became increasingly a struggle for constant one upsmanship, with fishermen and craftsmen seeking to create ever more realistic mermaids that could further deceive those who looked upon them, as well as more and more detailed and elaborate backstories behind the creatures. It is apparent that they were at least somewhat successful in light of the enduring fascination these mermaids held for so many.
Unfortunately, the FeeJee mermaid exhibited by Barnum was lost in a fire in the 1860s, so we are no longer able to study it, however many similar specimens of the era still exist today. In Japan, there are quite a few alleged “mermaid mummies” that are most likely FeeJee mermaid gaffes of the type exhibited around the world during Barnum’s era. One resides in Zuiryuji temple in Osaka, where it was presented as a gift from a trader in 1862. In Miyouchi temple, Niigata prefecture, a 30 cm long mermaid can be seen, a typical monkey upper body upon a fish tail, with its hands positioned up near its cheeks as if in surprise. In Wakayama prefecture, at Karukayado temple, there resides a 50 cm long mermaid mummy. This specimen has sharp fangs, and a wide, open mouth. The lower body is covered in scales and there are nipple-like protuberances upon the body.
Perhaps the oldest mermaid specimen in Japan is kept at the base of iconic Mt. Fuji by a Shinto sect. This specimen is said to be around 1,400 years old. It has a large head which is bald except for some hair from its forehead to its nose. The eyes and mouth are open in an expression of apparent agony. The hands are webbed, with sharp claws, and the tail of the beast is 20 cm long. Such an old relic suggests that if it is indeed faked, then the art of creating mermaids has been around in some form for quite a lot longer than the era of circus sideshows and stretches back further than the earliest recorded known faked specimens. It is unfortunate that the sacred relic is not available for any sort of testing to ascertain exactly what it is.
Interestingly, in practically all of the places where the mermaid mummies are interred those who keep them insist to this day that they are not fakes, but rather the real thing. Other FeeJee mermaids of Japanese manufacture can be found in many locations around the world. A well known and nicely preserved specimen can be found at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands. It was bought sometime between 1817 and 1824 by a Jan Cock Blomhoff while serving as director of the Dutch trading colony in Nagasaki, Japan. Another well known construct of Japanese manufacture is the Banff merman, kept at the Indian Trading Post near the Banff Springs Hotel in Canada. Ted Hart, executive director of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, says the merman was purchased in 1915 by Norman Luxton, an important figure in Banff’s early development. The exact origins of the merman are not fully known, but it too is thought to have originated in Japan.
In 1996, a curious FeeJee mermaid specimen was found by accident in a locked storage facility at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York. This mermaid is of particular interest as it seems to have been purchased in the 1950s at an auction of the Stanford White Collection and donated to the university. This is significant, because it is believed that White acquired the mermaid from PT Barnum’s estate in 1891, which has led some to speculate that it could in fact be the very FeeJee mermaid made famous by Barnum and which was believed to have been destroyed. In fact there has been some debate as to whether Barnum’s FeeJee mermaid was ever even destroyed at all, and speculation that it is still floating around out there somewhere. On several occassions, collectors have claimed that they are in possession of Barnum’s original FeeJee mermaid, however none of these have ever been confirmed.
We have established that at one time, fake mermaids produced in Japan were rampant, and drew the amazement of many. It seems that the human attraction to mystery and the unknown played a large part in the enduring popularity of these fabrications every bit as much as the fine attention to detail present in Japanese craftsmanship. Even when they were largely exposed as being faked, Japanese mermaids such as Barnum’s continued to draw in spectators, and money, for those who exhibited them. It is apparent that even as people knew what they were seeing was fake, there was still some part of them that secretly wondered “what if,” when observing these mermaids.
Are clever fakes and playing to people’s need for mystery all there is to this Japanese mermaid business? Are cleverly made fakes the beginning and end of the story? Eyewitness accounts of Ningyo by the Japanese go back to the 6th century, long before the trade in fake mermaids ever took off. In addition, there are the reports made by foreign seamen, and captain’s logs entries telling of mermaid sightings in Japanese waters going back centuries. It seems these were obviously not all the result of monkey bodies sewn to the bodies of fish. What were these people seeing and what were fishermen dragging up in their nets? Surely it seems to be stretching credulity to suggest that experienced seamen would routinely see living mermaids due to being influenced by the sight of a faked one. Is there perhaps something more going on here?
While fishermen and seafarers certainly saw Japanese mermaids as real, this is not the only clue that perhaps there is something more behind the accounts. There are even old encyclopedias of Japanese animal life that seem to allude to the mermaids as being perfectly real animals. One example can be found in the works of Keisuke Ito, a respected man of science who is considered to have been instrumental in bringing Western medicine to Japan. In addition to his occupation as a doctor, Mr. Ito was known to make meticulous, realistic looking sketches of all manner of marine life, which were compiled into various tomes that were sort of zoological catalogues. There have been detailed sketches of mermaids found within these collections, buried amongst those of known animals and others that were drawn in a technical, realistic way that suggests they were based on actual biological specimens. Whether these drawings of mermaids were actually based on something the artist really saw or not is unknown, however the way that these mermaids are depicted makes no distinction between them and the reams of other sketches of very real animals accompanying them. Several other zoological encyclopaedias published in the Edo era also feature mermaids and other animal oddities presented alongside real, known animals.
In light of eyewitness accounts and the coverage made in these zoological publications, it seems worth considering that perhaps the fake Japanese mermaids made famous in the 19th century might not have been the whole picture. One wonders if perhaps the manufactured Feejee mermaids may have been artificial copies based on the exhibited bodies of real animals. Certainly many of the natural oddities on display in the Edo era misemono sideshow carnivals were indeed quite real. Exotic animals from the known corners of the Earth were on display at these events, both alive and dead. If actual specimens of something like the mermaids were presented and made a lot of money, it seems that perhaps there would be those looking to turn a profit and make copies of these originally very real animals. If this were the case, perhaps the deluge of fake mermaids copied from real ones flooded the market, eclipsing and concealing any potentially authentic specimens that existed amongst them. Although no alleged mermaid mummy has ever been confirmed as anything other than creative taxidermy, it does make one wonder whether there may have once been, or still are, genuine specimens out there.
Whether the Japanese mermaids ever were real or not may never be known for sure. Actual sightings fell off after the 1800s, and there are very few modern accounts. It is often hard to tell where the fakes begin and where any real animal may end. We are left to wonder what those seafarers once saw out there in the seas of Japan long before fake mermaids were prominent, and what mysteries those fishermen were entangling in their nets. Perhaps packed away in some museum or forgotten storage area out there, a real preserved Japanese mermaid sits on a shelf collecting dust, long assumed to be faked and far away from its original home in the waters of Japan.