Don’t Order the Fish: The Mermaid and the 800 Year-Old Nun

Don’t Order the Fish: The Mermaid and the 800 Year-Old Nun

Imagine this:

The place is Japan; the time is pre-10th century C.E., and you have a friend.

A friend who’s a fisherman.

Having a friend who’s a fisherman is good news when you live on an island, and even better news when he invites you and your buddies over for dinner.

Dinner and sake (rice wine), that is.

Your friend is especially excited.

It seems that he caught a very unusual fish, one unlike any he’d caught before.

Curiously, you peer into the kitchen, and this is what you see:

Don’t Order the Fish: The Mermaid and the 800 Year-Old Nun
Hiroshi Kinoshita

Okay, in fairness, what you see is a little fresher.

Still, it ain’t your typical daily catch.

You recognize this for what it is: a Ningyo, a Japanese mermaid.


With a voice like a flute, with a mouth like a monkey’s, and with tiny fish teeth and golden, shimmering scales, the Ningyo were known for their sweet tasting meat.

Eating a Ningyo typically had two consequences: on the down side, it would result in storms and general misfortune, to the point that most fishermen would toss them back into the sea.

On the flip side, eating one could confer semi-immortality.

(incidentally, finding one dead, washed ashore, was a sure sign of war or other impending horrors)

Back to our story:


Recognizing that your friend is cooking up a Ningyo, you warn your other friends.

Unfortunately, they, much like yourself, turn out to be a very polite lot.

Instead of anyone pointing out that their main meal is mermaid, everyone simply took their dinner in to-go napkins, while happily drinking sake.


“Daddy, you’re late!” complained one your other friend’s daughters when he stumbled home.

“Daddy, what did you bring home for me?!?”

“Daddy, give it to me now!!!”

In a blackout state, your friend handed his daughter the napkin.

He snapped back into reality just as she pulled out the savory flesh.

Unfortunately, he was too late. She swallowed the meat before he could swipe it from her hand,,,

The end result?

Yao Bikuni (八百比丘尼, “eight-hundred (years) Buddhist priestess”) or Happyaku Bikuni.


Your friend’s daughter would get married, and live a normal life…except, she didn’t age.

Of course, the same fate wasn’t shared by those around her.

Over years, she grew weary.

How many losses must one soul bare?

She became a Buddhist nun, a Bikhunni, and traveled the world, before eventually leaving her mortal coil after some 800 years.


The ultimate proof of relativity:

Immortality: redemption for some, damnation for others.


Now, let’s fast forward:

The place is still Japan; specifically Enjuin Temple in Asakuchi city. 40 years ago, a mummified mermaid was put on display there. Allegedly caught in the Pacific Ocean between 1736 and 1741, it had been tucked away until it was rediscovered by researcher Hiroshi Kinoshita, of the Okayama Folklore Society.

Kept in a box for preservation, it was also accompani8ed by a letter of authentication from 1903:

Hiroshi Kinoshita

The letter states that the specimen was an “unusual fish”, sold to an affluent family, who then donated it to the temple.

Given the legend of Yao Bikuni, one can understand why the mermaid was venerated and prayed to for matters of health and aging.

Hiroshi Kinoshita

The take away?

If you see your friend in the kitchen cooking up a Ningyo,

(or anything else that terrifies you)

for the love of the All That’s Holy,

Say Something!!!

(and next time, don’t order the fish!)

A ningyo from Toriyama Sekien’s Konjaku Hyakki Shūi.

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