Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, Yokai Jiten, Japanese Wikipedia, and other sources
If you find yourself out sailing strange tides in an unfamiliar sea, the umibozu is not the kind of monk you should pray to for help.
The Legend of the Umibozu
Sailors in Japan’s yokai-haunted waters had many things to dread. Dark nights and stormy waters could bring funa yurei rising up from the depths demanding hishaku, a wooden ladel, that they would then use to fill a boat with water and sink it to the depths. But it was clear skies and calm waters that brought fear of the umibozu. Rising suddenly from the placid surface of the water, umibozu looked like a great ocean swell, a giant black head that would lurch upwards and upside ships, sending the sailors into murky waters. They were massive, rising as much as ten meters tall, and strong enough to snap a ship in two.
Umibozu (海坊主) translates literally as “sea monk.” They are known by other, similar names such as umi boshi (海法師) and umi nyudo (海入道), both of which are variations of the world “sea monk.” (“boshi “ and “nyudo” are other words for monk, meaning “teacher of the Buddhist laws” and “walker of the way” respectively). The name is entirely linked to appearance—the rounded head of an umibozu was said to resemble the shaved head of a Buddhist monk—and has no deeper connections to Buddhism. I have seen some English language sources saying that the umibozu are the spirits of drowned monks, but I haven’t found this claim supported by Japanese sources.
Traditionally, umibozu rise from calm waters. Their appearance is sometimes said to herald a coming storm, and they can be accompanied by other strange ocean phenomenon. Or even just feelings of dread. In any case, wise fishermen could read the signs that an umibozu was about, and would refuse to launch their boat until the waters were clear.
Accounts of umibozu differ wildly. They can be anything from a hairy creature resembling a sperm whale to a beautiful woman who can shape-change into a vicious monster. The classic umibozu is the one most often represented by ukiyo-e artists; that of a giant black head with two massive eyes thrusting up from the water. Umibozu can be gigantic, there have been reports of tiny umibozu, no more than a few feet or inches tall. Some say that these are children and that the massive umibozu are full grown adults. When they attack, some say that they cling to the hull of a ship to drag it down, or have great stretching arms that can pull a ship down by its mast. Some say that they try desperately to quench any lit fires on the boat. Some say they cry “Kuya kuya” as they attack, and that striking them with the oars will bring cries of pain, “Oitata!,” from the smaller species. In some legends, they can be repelled by tobacco smoke.
Most researchers think that umibozu are a misunderstanding of a natural occurrence. The shells of great ocean sea turtles or massive jellyfish rising suddenly from the water, or a black thunderhead of clouds rising in the distance have all been sited as the origin of umibozu legends.
A more recent candidate is a rare phenomenon called a rogue wave, which is a large and spontaneous ocean surface wave that occurs far out in the sea fitting almost exactly the traditional description of an umibozu. Rogue waves themselves were thought to be sailor’s folklore until the Draupner wave was recorded in 1995 off the coast of Norway.
Umi Bozu across Japan and Elsewhere
Unsurprisingly, as an island nation Japan has long had a deep and abiding fear of the ocean. An uncountable assortment of sea monsters live in the waters off of every coast. Each small fishing village created its own folklore, and as villages grew larger and merged into port cities mythologies mixed and blended, accounting for the massive and infinite variety.
Most Japanese yokai are regional. They were created in one particular area, and there they stayed. But the umibozu are widespread, and touch every part of Japan that is touched by the ocean. Because they are so widespread, over the centuries the story of umibozu has mixed with other sea creatures. In some accounts, the umibozu are like the funa yurei, demanding a spoon or a barrel in order to fill a boat with sea water. In some accounts, the umibozu are like the kappa, trying to suck the shirikodama from out of the human anus.
In the Tohoku region, before going out to sea for fishing the captain of fishing boats would give prayer to the Goddess of the Sea for safe passing. It is said that the umibozu are the retribution of the Goddess on any ship captain who fails to give her the proper respect.
In Okayama prefecture, the umibozu were considered to be an aspect of the yokai nurarihyon. Sailors in the Seto Inland Sea feared the rising of the nurarihyon’s large head from the water, which would flip ships over as a joke.
In Aomori prefecture, Shimokita district, Higashidori village, people who ate shark (eating shark was sometimes taboo in Japan, as sharks ate people so it was seen as cannibalistic) were said to become mojyabune (亡者船; ship of the dead), which was associated with the umibozu. People protected themselves from the mojyabune by mixing miso paste with water and pouring it into the ocean.
In Shizuoka prefecture, Kamo district, they told tales of the umi kozo, which refers to a young monk. The umi kozo was covered in a fine hair up to its eyes, and came up along people’s fishing lines, cackling hideously.
There have been stories of shape-changing umibozu as well. In Miyaki prefecture, on Ooshima island, they say that umibozu disguise themselves as a beautiful woman lost and swimming in the ocean. The same story is told in Iwate prefecture, where it is said that the woman will invite you to come into the water with her, and that anyone foolish enough to do so will be swallowed whole.
Many other countries have similar legends, or sea monsters that resemble the umibozu. In Mongolia there is the Mokuri Kokuri. In China the Kikokutan, and in Europe the Sea Monk and the Bishop fish haunt the oceans.
Reports of Umibozu
There have been several written accounts of umibozu. Many of these are eye-witness encounters appearing in newspapers or collected in the bound volumes that served as the popular literature of the time.
In the Kansei era (1789 – 1801), in a collection of writings called Kanso Jigo (閑窓自語), in Osaka prefecture, Kaitsuka city, there was a report of an umibozu that rose out of the water and stayed visible for three days before returning to the sea.
In Wakayama prefecture, in the 21rst year of Meiji (1888) the Miyako Shinbun newspaper reported an umibozu monster that was 2.4 meters long and weighed up to 263 kilograms. It was said to be light brown with orange eyes, with a mouth like a crocodile and a tail like a giant shrimp, with a voice like a cow.
In the collection Usō Kanwa (雨窓閑話), it was written that in Mie prefecture it was thought that the end of the month was the time for umibozu, and ships were prohibited from launching at that time. A sailor broke the ban and went to see at the end of the month. Sure enough, he soon encountered an umibozu who approached him and asked “Am I terrifying?” The sailor replied, “I find nothing as terrifying as trying to make my way in this world,” at which the umibozu suddenly vanished.
And the most recent account, published in the Mainichi Shinbun newspaper in 1971, told of a first-hand account by a ship that was tuna fishing near New Zealand. When they went to hoist up their catch, a giant animal came up tangled in the lines. The captain and crew panicked at what they were sure was some monster from the deep. The monster was brown colored, with deeply wrinkled skin, and eyes fifteen centimeters in diameter. They saw no nose or mouth. Only a part of the monster’s body came out of the water, with the rest hidden in the ocean water. The matter was investigated by Japan’s oceanography department, who felt that experienced fishermen were not likely to mistake a whale or a giant squid for something different. If, as the fishermen said, the visible part of the body that breached the surface was around 1.5 meters long, then the remainder of the body must be larger than any animal ever known.
Perhaps it was an umi bozu.
This was posted by request for reader Stuart, who says he is writing a song about umi bozu. Hope to hear that song when it is finished! And also thanks to comic writer Brian Wood, in whose comic The Massive appearing in Dark Horse Presents I first heard about the Draupner wave and thought … that sounds like an umibozu!
Read more yokai tales on hyakumonogatari.com