Exclusive Profile Interview


UNDER THE RAINBOW – A website publication advocating better world, brighter future


“You’re your worst enemy.”

In this exclusive interview, the chief of the Ningyo clan makes a rare appearance, emerging from the deep seas to speak with environment correspondent JAMES YEO on the mythology of its species, the recent resurgence of wildlife – and to deliver an ominous message on our ecology.

“You know why I am here, right?” said the chief of the Ningyo clan.

I was gripped with foreboding as I stood by the breakwaters on the deserted shore of the Fujinomiya Sea, one late morning in Spring. The meeting was as surreal as it was momentous. Up until then, my interviewee had only been a sea beast from Japanese mythology; its existence talked about but never proven. But here, manifesting itself in full amphibious glory, a cryptozoologist’s living proof, was the chief of the ningyo, a human fish. While essentially a marine creature, the ningyo bore an uncanny resemblance to a fully-mature woman, having her face, albeit deformed, with a pear-shaped torso, ten slender bony digits ending in sharp claws, and a tail of a fish. The Japanese believe that a ningyo emerging from the watery depths to come to shore is an omen of calamity and misfortune.

“To catch the sun!” the ningyo responded to its own question, in an attempt to break the ice. “The rivers and estuaries, seas and oceans have become cleaner and clearer, so my aquatic friends and I decided to surface. It’s been too long.”

“Yes, indeed! Almost 1,400 years! That’s the age of the mummified ningyo in the temple near here,” I said, “Tell me more about it.”

“Ahh, that beast!” the Ningyo Chief smirked, leaning back against a rock to make itself comfortable. “That’s my ancestor at the Tenshou-Kyousha Shrine. His remains have resided there for 1,400 years.” 

According to local folklore, a ningyo had appeared before a Japanese prince moments before the beast took its last breath. It revealed to the prince a terrible secret: The miserable creature had once been a fisherman! As a result of trespassing upon protected waters, a curse was cast upon him, transforming him into a ningyo. The fisherman learned his lesson and requested the prince to found a shrine and display its mummified relic. Visitors – which are few and far between as the shrine is located deep in the Mount Fuji woods, accessible only on foot – coming to view the ningyo would then be reminded of the sanctity of marine life.

“It’s a cautionary tale that tells Man not to transgress protected waters and plunder the oceans. The tale rings true to me as I have had many close brushes with death because of Man and his rapacious ways.”

“Is it true that ningyos are the cause of calamities?” I probed.

“No! Not at all! We merely appear as a warning of the devastating effects of Man’s destructive, reckless and naive attitude. As the saying goes: ‘You’re your ‘worst enemy.’ All the problems arise from mankind’s actions. The virus you have now, you brought it upon yourself. This virus is a lesson for Man: bushmeat such as pangolins, monkeys and bats are not for consumption! As for hunting down marine creatures – you already know the consequences of trespassing our habitat!” 

I felt my heart in my throat. More than one person had had their lives ending miserably when they offended a ningyo. The fisherman was not the only victim of a ningyo’s wrath. There was another sorry tale of Man’s transgression against the ningyo. Despite looking abominable, the ningyo is believed to have flesh that is fragrant and sweet. For those who risk their lives to eat it, put themselves in danger of living forever. This happened to the girl who ate a ningyo caught and grilled by a fisherman. Years passed and the girl grew up and got married. But she kept her youthful appearance while her husband grew old and died. After many years of eternal youth and being widowed over and over, the woman became a nun and wandered through various countries. When she finally returned to her hometown, her will to live had ceased. She died at the age of 800. The weight of a curse bestowed upon those who eat the ningyo is tremendous. 

“Today, I have come to tell you about the larger calamity at hand!” the Chief Ningyo repeated. Its strident voice jolted me out of my recollection of the cursed lives. 

Has it come to warn us about COVID-19? We were experiencing one of the worst pandemics in modern times. But as people stay indoors to contain the spread of the virus, the natural world has a rare opportunity to experience life without humans around. Is it any coincidence that the Ningyo Chief has emerged? 

Since January this year, wildlife living in air, on land and at sea across the world has seen a resurgence. Peacocks stroll the streets of Spanish cities, dolphins swim in the lagoons of Venice, and macaques have overrun a Thai city. Now, abandoning its natural reclusion, a legendary ningyo was lounging before me, its tail spreading out into a fan, the oily scales shimmering in the sun.

Historical documents recorded that ningyos were spotted, washed ashore on the beaches of Asia, in 1346. Soon after, the “Black Death” bubonic plague ripped across the world’s continents, claiming 50 million lives. Then in 1918, a crew of sailors traversing the Sea of Japan reported sighting on the water surface a colony of Ningyos, for they live in social communities not unlike a shoal of sardines or a pod of dugongs. That very year, the Spanish flu broke out and lasted for two years, by which time, 500 million people had been infected, and at least 50 million more succumbed to the influenza. Both pandemics went away with time.

“But…” the Ningyo Chief paused and with a heavy deep sigh, and lamented: “…the effects of pollution remain. Humans have destroyed so much!”

Its voice rose in agitation again: “Look at me! I’ve lost vision in my right eye in an accident caused by mankind. Two oil tankers collided. The crude oil which spilt into the sea spread over an unprecedented magnitude. The damage to marine ecology was untold. The depth of the impact is still unfolding.

“The oil slick smothered my colony. We were smeared head to tail with petroleum. It took months for the coat of oil to dissolve from our bodies. Many of my compatriots did not survive…”

I winced, realising the devastating repercussion of human actions on sea creatures. In recent months, reduced economic activity and a respite from pollution have resulted from global efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, the benefits will only be short term.

“What’s the point when Man has no plan nor sustained action on air quality and climate?” chided the Ningyo Chief, its voice rising with exasperation. “You need to take care of the environment for it to take care of you! Is the relic of my ancestor not enough of a warning?”

An awkward silence ensued, breaking only when the Ningyo Chief extended to me an upturned scallop shell. “Here, have some kelp,” it said, “It’s my favourite snack.” I helped myself absent-mindedly to a sliver of the dark seaweed, a knee-jerk response to conceal my astonishment of this extraordinary meeting.

A tile engraving of a Ningyo from the Edo period (1603-1868).

he mummified Ningyo relic in the Tenshou-Kyousha Shrine.


Black, Annetta. “Tenshou-Kyousha Shrine Mermaid Mummy.” Atlas Obscura,
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/fujinomiya-mermaid-mummy. Accessed 27 August 2020.

Wu Mingren. “Magical mermaids of Japanese folklore”. Ancient Origins, 22 April 2016,https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/magical-mermaids-japanese-folklore-005755. Accessed 26 August 2020.

James Yeo (Class of 2024) enjoys folklore, legends and mythology. In researching for “Under The Rainbow”, he learnt about cryptozoology and anthropomorphism. Writing for him, therefore, is a process of learning and discovery.