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,
'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.
Nevertheless, a mermaid often brings bad luck or tragedy to those who catch it, and thus it is a fishermen's
custom to throw it back. The ningyo are often caught just before a storm, and when they wash up on beaches
it is said to be an omen of war.
Even the excessively long life granted by ningyo meat can be like a curse for mortals, as the famous
story about the mermaid of Wakasa (now Obama town in Fukui prefecture) shows. It is said that a rare and
marvelous fish with a human-like face was caught by a local fisherman, who had never seen such a thing before.
Baffled, he served it at a party, but none of the guests would touch it once the fish's strange head was
discovered. One man, however, was a bit tipsy on saké and by accident took some of the meat home and gave it
to his daughter, who was fifteen or sixteen at the time. Subsequently the girl stopped physically aging.
She married many times, and had many children, but her husbands and friends all grew old and died while her
youth remained unchanged. Finally she could stand it no longer, shaved off her hair and became a Buddhist nun.
Eventually she is said to have gone into a cave alone and at last died there. Today she is called the
Happyaku Bikuni or Yao Bikuni, the "Eight Hundred Nun", because that is the age she lived to.