WITH AN ELABORATE ORIGIN STORY that goes back centuries, the hideous mermaid at Fujinomiya may be the oldest of its kind.
If the legends surrounding this hideous little goblin at the Tensho Kyosho Temple in Japan are to be believed, it might be the oldest mermaid ever. As the story goes, this creature is 1400 years old. According to the story, the mermaid first appeared to Prince Shotoku at Lake Biwa. With its last breaths, it told a story of woe: the miserable creature had been a fisherman who trespassed to fish in protected waters, and was now transformed into a hideous beast as punishment. Having learned his lesson, and wanting to be an example after his death, the mermaid asked the prince to found a temple to display his horrible, mummified remains as a very strange object lesson in the sanctity of life.
Notably different from Western ideas of beautiful mermaids luring sailors into the watery depths with their charms, the Japanese mermaid of lore, known as the “ningyo,” was often depicted as a pointy-toothed little monster, sometimes even sporting claws or horns. Despite this particular creature’s allegedly long history, it is difficult to overlook its similarities to the sideshow gaffs which became enormously popular after being first displayed by the infamous PT Barnum — gaffs which were known to often have been manufactured in Japan.
Ancient or merely old, the mermaid is cared for by the Shinto order at Fujinomiya, near Mount Fuji.