What Does Ayakashi Mean in English?

Mizuki Shigeru Ayakashi

Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, Kaii Yokai Densho Database Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center, and Other Sources

A sea serpent so massive it takes three days to pass by in a boat? Mysterious lights floating by the beach? A generic term for ghost stories? Ayakashi is one of the most complicated and convoluted terms in all of Japanese folklore. There is no easy answer to this simple question.

What Does Ayakashi Mean?

Usually when investigating a yokai I like to start with deciphering the kanji that make up the name. That is your first, best clue as to what the monster or phenomenon is. But ayakashi is written either in hiragana (あやかし) or katakana (アヤカシ), neither of which give any hints as to the meaning. There is an alternate and specific spelling of ayakashi that does use kanji, and we will look into that later.

In its most basic usage, ayakashi is a general term for yokai that appear above the surface of the water, and can be translated as “strange phenomenon of the sea.” That fact that this is the surface of the water is important—yokai tend to appear at boundaries, places where one thing becomes another thing. So ayakashi are yokai that haunt the boundary between the ocean and the air, instead of sea monsters swimming in the dark depths.

There are many yokai that have been called ayakashi over the years. Here are a few of them:

Ayakashi no Kaika – The Strange Lights of Ayakashi


In Nagasaki, the term ayakashi refers to strange lights that dance above the surface of the water, and are found mostly on the beaches in twilight.

These lights are different from the typical Japanese kaika (怪火; strange lights), in that the floating fires are said to contain what looks to be small children running around inside of them. This phenomenon is particularly associated with Tsushima city, Nagasaki.

Some of these ayakashi no kaika also appear out on the water, where it is said they can suddenly take on the appearance of massive rocks or landmasses that appear out of nowhere. The goal of this transformation is to panic ships, forcing them to change course and run aground or sink. But the irony is, if the brave captain sails right through the mirage, they vanish leaving everyone unharmed.

Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts


See Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts

In Yamaguchi and Saga prefectures ayakashi refers to funa yurei, a group of yurei who drowned at sea and now try to sink boats to increase their numbers. Funa yubrei are known to float up to the surface of the water appearing first as kaika, then transforming into figures when they reach the surface. They will demand a hishaku—a bamboo spoon—from any boat they encounter, and if given one they will swiftly fill the boat with water and drag the crew down to the depths.

A wise captain always carried a hishaku with holes drilled in it when sailing in funa yurei infested waters. Giving this spoon to the funa yurei means that they cannot sink your boat.

Several other areas in Western Japan use the term ayakashi to describe ghosts of those drowned at sea, who try to sink boats and drown swimmers either for revenge or to swell their ranks. A good example of this is the Shudan Borei.

The Woman of the Well

This story of the ayakashi appears only once, in the Edo period Kaidanshu Kaidanro no Sue (怪談老の杖; A Cane for an Old Man of Kaidan).

In Taidozaki, in the Chosei district of Chiba prefecture, a group of sailors put to show in order to re-stock their fresh water holds. As they pulled into the beach, a beautiful woman came walking by carrying a large bucket. She said the bucket was filled with fresh water that she had drawn from a nearby well, and that she would be only too happy to share it with the sailors.

Hearing this, the Captain said “There’s no well nearby. I’ve heard similar stories of thirsty sailors beguiled by a beautiful woman offering them water, never to be seen again. That woman is an ayakashi!” He ordered the boat swiftly back to the sea. As the men pulled their oars, the woman came running towards the ship in a rage, and leapt into the ocean biting the hull of the ship and holding on tight. The quick-thinking Captain beat her off with one of the oars, and the ship sailed away unharmed.



A real-life animal associated with the term ayakashi are remoras, the leach-like fish with sucker bellies that fasten themselves onto sharks and other ocean-going objects in order to get a free ride and some free food.

According to folk belief, if remoras fasten themselves to the underside of your boat, you will become stuck in the water and unable to move. In this case, remoras are called ayakashi.

Ikuchi – The Oily Sea Serpent

Sekien Ayakashi

By far the most famous depiction of ayakashi is the massive sea serpent Ikuchi. The association comes from Toriyama Seiken (鳥山石燕), and his entry for ayakashi in his Konjyaku Hyakki Shui (今昔百鬼拾遺; A Collection of 100 Ghosts from Times Past)

Toriyama wrote:

“When boats sail the seas of Western Japan, they encounter a beast so large it takes 2-3 days just to sail past. The body of the beast drips oil, but if the sailors work together to clear the boat of the oil no harm will come to them. If they don’t, they will sink.“

The Ikuchi is a legendary monster from Ibaraki prefecture, that was written about in Edo period Kaidanshu like Tsumura Soan (津村正恭)’s Tankai (譚海; Sea Ballads) and Negishi Shizumori (根岸 鎮衛)’s Mimibukuro (耳袋; Ear Bag). The Ikuchi is described as eel-like and massively long, several kilometers at least. It was not inherently dangerous, but would become tangled up with ships accidently. Crews had to work often for days to get their ship free of the Ikuchi. The most dangerous part was the oil that seeped from the monster’s body. The crew had to diligently clean up all the oil, or the ship would sink.

Why Toriyama called his depiction of the Ikuchi “ayakashi” isn’t known. Perhaps he didn’t know the monster’s true name, or perhaps he was using the general term for sea monsters instead of the specific name of Ikuchi. But for whatever reason, such is Toriyama’s influence that Ayakashi has come to describe the Ikuchi in most modern depictions.

Other Depictions

The word ayakashi has been put on almost every variation of sea monster you can think of. The 1918 book Dozoku to Densetsu (土俗と伝説; Local Customs and Legends) describes the ayakashi like this:

“The ayakashi is a mystery of the sea. They haunt boats on the open waters. Their appearance is like an enormous octopus. It will wrap itself around a boat, and only let go when gold coins are given to it.”

The 1923 book Tabi to Densetsu (旅と伝説; Travels and Legends) says this about ayakashi:

“While traveling the open sea at night, you will see lights in the distance. A ship approaches, mysteriously traveling against the wind. The ship is blazing, covered in lanterns of every shape and size, and suddenly overtakes your vessel. Or sometimes it disappears all together, and reappears next to you. The boat is filled with the souls of those who drowned at sea, and they want to add to their number. If they get close enough, they will fling an iron basket filled with fire onto your ship, killing all on board.”

Another Edo period kaidanshu offers this description:

“When the winds blow from the West, the dead travel on the waves. With lanterns hanging from the prow, you can make out the site of a woman clad in a white kimono, standing in the prow of a small ship. This is the ayakashi.”

There are many, many more. Most of the stories are slightly similar—describing either some kind of great sea monster, or a boat full of drowning victims out for revenge—but few of them are exactly the same. This is probably what cause folklorists and storytellers to throw up their hands and say “Fine! Ayakashi just means all sea weirdness. That covers everything, right?”

Not quite …

Ayakashi and the Masks of Noh

Noh Mask Reiayakashijpg

While no one agrees on exactly what kind of ocean phenomenon ayakashi is, they are all at least agreed that it is SOME kind of ocean phenomenon. Except for Noh theater.

Many of Japan’s arts have a specialized vocabulary that is used nowhere else (try going to a sushi restaurant in Japan and asking for some “purple” and you will see what I mean.) As you know (ha ha!) Noh theater uses masks. All of the masks have names, and the name for a male mask of a ghost or violent god is called ayakashi.

Noh uses a specialized kanji, 怪士 meaning strange (怪; ayaka – ) + warrior (士; shi). These masks come in variation, like the chigusa ayakashi which is fleshy and more human-like, or the shin no ayakashi with protruding eyes and bulging blood vessels. The most terrifying is the rei no ayakashi, a skeletonesque face with a white pallor and sunken eyes. The ayakashi masks were designed around the Muromachi period and where used interchangeably for many ghostly roles, but by the Edo period each mask had been assigned a specific role.

Because of the masks of Noh, and Ayakashi no Mono (怪士のもの) can refer to a ghost story of Noh, where one of the ayakashi masks are used. And that is where the confusion comes in, from using the term “ayakashi” as a general word for yokai or “ghost story.” It is … but ONLY in Noh theater.

Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales

ayakashis samurai horror tales

And that brings us to where most Westerners have heard the term ayakashi, in the anime Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. While this is a brilliant series, you will notice that nowhere is there a sea creature of any kind, neither monster nor boat full of lantern-bearing yurei.

That is because the series is named after the Noh usage of ayakashi, which gives it a mysterious, nostalgic feel (and is also a bit misleading, as the stories in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales come from Kabuki theater and not Noh. But that’s marketing for you … )

Translator’s Note

This started out with me answering a reader’s question on the difference between yokai, ayakashi, and mononoke. It soon became apparent that there was far too much information for a simple answer, and blossomed into this article.

And I still didn’t answer the question! Sorry! But at least you will have a better understanding of what ayakashi means!

Further Reading:

For other informative posts about yokai and such, check out:

What Does Yokai Mean in English?

How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

A Brief History of Yokai

Funa Yurei

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults

Sazae Oni – The Turban Shell Demon


Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

The Sazae Oni may not look like much—just a giant shellfish with an odd set of arms. But then you read the legends, and discover that this bizarre creature is a testicle thief that has more in common with the classical succubus of the Malleus Maleficarum than traditional Japanese yokai … and it starts to get more interesting. And scarier.

What Does Sazae Oni Mean?

Sazae are a popular menu item in Japan, although almost unknown in the West. They are called Turbo cornutus, which literally means horned turban. But, they are more often called Turban Shells or Turban Snails in English, or just by the Japanese word Sazae.

The Sazae Oni’s name uses the kanji 栄螺 (Sazae; turban shell) + 鬼(Oni; Demon, Ogre). Like the Onikuma (Demon Bear), the term “oni” is used in a general sense of “demon” instead of the sense of the Japanese yokai, Oni.

What is a Sazae Oni?

The origins of the Sazae Oni are obscure, and come in two distinct different flavors. According to one legend, the Sazae Oni is a typical animal yokai, one that has lived a long time—in the case of the Sazae Oni, 30 years—and been transformed by the magic of long life into a supernatural creature. Like many of these creatures, the Sazae Oni grows to unusual size, and becomes a blend of human and animal features, gaining two powerful arms and eyes on its shell.

Toriyama Sekien Sazae-oni

Artist Toriyama Sekein used the Sazae Oni as a metaphor for the mysterious universe that we live in, a realm where all things are possible. Toriyama included the Sazae Oni in his yokai collection Gazu Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro (画図百器徒然袋; The Illustrated Bag of One Hundred Random Demons), where he wrote:

“If a sparrow becomes a clam upon entering the sea, and a field-rat can transform into a quail, then in this unfathomable universe it is no impossible thing that a turban shell might become a demon. I have seen this in something like a dream.”

Toriyama is making a reference to a Chinese proverb, that comes from the Liji (礼記; Book of Rites). It says that a sparrow may become a clam in the sea, and a field-rat may become a quail. The proverb means that even impossible things can happen in the mysterious world we live in.

These Sazae Oni are harmless creatures, who do nothing more than rise to the surface of the ocean on moonlit nights to dance on the waves. There is even some mixing with the sea dragons that rule the land beneath the waves.

And then there is the other, less esoteric origin.

Sazae Oni – The Succubus of the Sea, and the Testicle Thief

In Kishu province (modern day Wakayama and Mie prefectures), there is a legend that Sazae Oni are born from lustful women who are thrown into the ocean as punishment for their wanton ways.

Sazae Oni

In one story, a ship of pirates hugging the coast heard the cries of a woman drowning in the waves. Seeing that the woman was beautiful, the pirates decided to rescue her. Once on board, the pirates planned to rape her but found instead that the woman was willing. Over the course of the night, she had sex with every member of the crew.

The woman had her own agenda—she kept a souvenir from each of her conquests, the man’s testicles that she supposedly bit off when she was finished. Discovering that they had been robbed of the precious possessions, the men charged at the woman who revealed herself as a Sazae Oni. She offered to sell the pirates back their testicles in exchange for their plundered treasure.

In this way the Sazae Oni traded “gold” for gold, as the Japanese word for testicles is kintama (golden balls).

This story of the Sazae Oni draws a further, and interesting, correlation with the succubus. In the 1486 Witchhunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum, it is said that succubus gather semen from their male lovers in order to breed. In a similar way, the Sazae Oni collects testicles, and some legends have sprang up saying that the Sazae Oni also uses the semen from the testicles in order to breed new Sazae Oni. This is a completely modern theory, however, and does not appear in old folklore studies.

There is a further legend of Sazae Oni, from the Boso peninsula in Chiba prefecture. In a story almost entirely unrelated to other instances, the Sazae Oni is said to take the form of a woman who wanders at night, staying at inns and making a meal of the innkeepers.

Translator’s Note:

This is another in my series of yokai that appear (however briefly) in my translation of Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. The Sazae Oni appears when Nonnonba buys Mizuki Shigeru an exceptionally large sazae to heat, and speculates that it might be a Sazae Oni. This plays on the young Shigeru’s imagination, as he searches for eyes on the massive shell.

Further Reading:

For other ocean-based yokai, check out:

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Bakekujira – The Skeleton Whale

Nure Onago – The Soaked Woman

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults


Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

Legends of a Great White Whale usually bring to mind Moby Dick, but the white of this whale is the color of its bones. For bones are all you can see of the Bakekujira—a massive, skeletal baleen whale that appeared and disappeared under mysterious circumstances once of the coast of Japan. Is it a monster? Is it a ghost? Is it a god? No one really knows for sure.

What Does Bakekujira (化鯨) Mean?

Bakekujira’s name is the same as many magical animals in Japanese folklore, with a difference of nuance. For most bake- creatures (bakeneko, bakenezumi, etc … ) the kanji 化 (bake; change) refers to a transformation, the ability to shift from one form to another. In Bakekujira—化 (bake; change) +鯨 (kujira; whale)—bake does not refer to a transformation. It just sounds scary and bizarre. This is one instance where translating bakekujira as “ghost whale” or “goblin whale” instead of “transforming whale” would be perfectly appropriate.

Inland Whaling2 Ukiyoe

The Tale of the Bakekujira

One rainy night, something massive and white appeared off the coast of Okino Island, Shimane prefecture. Fishermen from the village watched it get closer and closer, and finally decided to take a rowboat out and see what it was. From its size, they knew it must be some sort of whale, but no one had seen a whale like that before. As they rowed out their boat, they saw the waters of the ocean glimmer with thousands upon thousands of fish, the likes of which they had never seen.

As they neared the white whale, one of the fisherman threw his harpoon and it passed through the mass of white unnoticed. Their vision obscured by the pounding rain, the fishermen finally got a good look at the monster—it was the skeleton of a great baleen whale, without an ounce of skin nor meat on it. But it was moving and alive.

The men were terrified, even more so because the ocean was writhing with unknown fish, and the skies were filled with strange birds. In the distance they saw an island that hadn’t been there before, as if they had rowed into some mysterious country. Then suddenly the vision ended, and the massive bakekujira—for that is what they called it—retreated back to the open sea as quickly as it had come.

When the fishermen went back to shore, they speculated that it might have been the ghost of a whale killed in a hunt or some strange god. Whatever it was, the bakekujira was never seen again.

The History of the Bakekujira

That’s it. There is that one story of the one appearance of the bakekujira, and that is the sum total of knowledge on the boney beastie. Anything else you read about the bakekujira is pretty much just made up to try and fill in the gaps.

In fact, for being so well-known in the modern world, the bakekujira is a limited and obscure yokai. It wasn’t important enough to be added to Toriyama Sekien’s numerous Edo-period yokai collections; there aren’t any ukiyo-e prints or kaidan collections including the bakekujira—at least not that I could find when I was researching for this article. In fact, the first mention I could find of the bakekujira was from Mizuki Shigeru, whose cool character design seems largely (solely?) responsible for the bakekujira being known today.

But Japan does have a long history of whale gods and venerated bones, to which the bakekujira fits in nicely. So allow me to segue to another aspect of Japanese folklore—the Whale Cults of Japan.

Hyochakushin – The Drifting Ashore God

Whale God Ukiyoe

In pre-seafaring Japan—before Samurai William brought the secret of keels and ocean-going vessels—fishermen were limited to the coastal waters their small ships could take them too. They eked out a subsistence living harvesting what was in reach. But every now and then, the oceans would deliver a bounty beyond imagination.

Whales would sometimes come inland, or beach themselves on the shore. Fishermen hunted these whales in a practice called Passive Whaling, using harpoons to kill the whale that was trapped in the shallows. This was a rare and auspicious event—a single whale provided vast amounts of meat and resources for the village, and seemed like a gift from the gods. And the whale itself was only a piece of the bounty. Whales often came in following larges schools of fish, so their arrival meant an abundance of sea life beyond the leviathan itself. The arrival of a whale could save a village teetering on the edge of starvation and ruin. It was mana from the oceans.

Passive Whaling Ukiyoe

Like modern Cargo Cults, the villagers could not understand from where or why the whale came in to shore. They only knew that a whale meant wealth and rare full stomachs. Whales were considered to be embodied deities (神体; shintai), and whale religions sprang up in coastal villages, called Hyochakushin (漂着神; Drifting Ashore God) or Yorikami Shinkyo (寄り神信仰; The Religion of the Visiting Kami).

The Whale and Ebisu

These original whale cults were primitive. The people praying generally had one request—send more whales. But in time they evolved. Like many religions, the Whale Cults in Japan were built on a portion of respect and gratitude and a portion of fear. Because whaling—even Passive Whaling—was a dangerous operation, some whale religions also saw in whales the ability to be malevolent gods, and prayed to appease their spirits and assuage their wrath. Bad storms of poor catches could mean an angry whale god, and nobody wanted that.

In time, these whale religions merged with another, more popular deity, the god of abundance Ebisu. Whales were first thought to be emissaries of Ebisu, and then became considered to be an incarnation of Ebisu himself. Because whales were thought to have the power to control fish, fishermen began carrying images of the god Ebisu as a whale to give them the same fish-controlling powers.

Kujira Jinjya – Whale Shrines


When you have feasted on the body of a god, it only makes sense to give the leftovers a proper burial. After stripping the body of everything useful, villagers buried the whale carcass in mounds called Kujira Tsuga (鯨塚; whale mounds). Kujira Tsuga were capped with monuments of some sort, varying from carved stone tablets to pagodas to small wooden or rock shrines. Often these Kujira Tsuga were created in memory of some particularly bountiful harvest, and annual festivals where held like the Daihyo Tsuifuku (大漁追福; Big Catch Memorial Service). Or people prayed to the Kujira Tsuga for Kaijyo Anzen Kito (海上安全祈祷; Prayers to Ensure Safety at Sea).

Places where passive whaling was more prevalent also had Kujira Haka (鯨墓; whale graveyards) and Kujira Ishibumi (鯨碑; whale stone monuments). There are about 100 known whale graveyards throughout Japan.

Many Kujira Tsuga have their own legends and myths. In Miyagi prefecture, Kesenmema city, Karakuwa town, a legend is told of a ship foundering in the storm that was approached by two massive, white whales. The two whales swam to either side of the ship and steadied it, guiding it into port before sailing away. From that day forward, the citizens of Karakuwa down abandoned their ancient custom of whale eating.

The legend is attached to the MIsaki Shrine in Karakuwa, but the connection is not exactly accurate. Misaki Shrine is an old Kujira Tsuga, raised over a whale corpse and topped with a stone monument expressing gratitude for the whale’s death.

In Ehime prefecture, Seiyo city, Akehama town there are three known Kujira Tsuga, one of which is high up in the mountains. The shrine is ancient, and overlooks the ocean. It now sits along the national highway route making it much more accessible. Hauling up that carcass must have been quite the event.

On June 21st, 1837 (Tenpo 8th), a massive whale came to shore directly underneath this shrine. This was during the Great Tenpo Famine, and the whale saved the entire area from starvation. The villagers gave the whale a posthumous Buddhist name, meaning roughly “The Great Whale Scholar of the Universe who Brings Health.” That was extremely rare at the time, as posthumous Buddhist names was an honor reserved for great lords. The shrine is still honored by the villagers today

Whalebone Tori Gates

Whalebone Tori Japan

By the Edo period, Japan had become a seafaring nation and created a whaling industry and culture. Whaling Associations established and maintained official Whale Shrines in coastal areas, many of which still exist today. Whale shrines were also built in Taiwan when it was under Japanese rule, usually dedicated to Ebisu.

The most dramatic of these have Whalebone Tori gates—the picturesque post-and-lintel design that signifies the presence of a kami spirit.. The oldest Whalebone Tori is in Wakayama prefecture, Taijicho town, called the Arch of Ebisu. Ihara Saikaku mentions this Tori in his book Nippon Eitaigura (日本永代蔵; Japan’s Warehouse of Eternity; 1688). The tori is probably much older, however. The newest whalebone tori is in Nagasaki, Shinkamigostocho town at the Kaido Jinjya (Shrine of the Sea). Dedicated in 1973, it was built by the Japan Whaling Association.

Nirai Kanai

In an odd and unrelated Okinawan legend, a whale dressed in a kimono was said to have brought the secrets of rice cultivation to Japan. You can read more about this in my article on Nirai Kanai.

The Curse of the Bakekujira

Island Whale Ukiyoe

There are two odd footnotes to the story of the bakekujira, that don’t really fit in anywhere else so I am sticking them on here at the end.

In the 1950s, manga artist Mizuki Shigeru was working on a kamishibai story about the bakekujira, and also eating a lot of whale meat. He suddenly came down with a terrible fever, that only stopped when he quit working on the story. He calls this the “Curse of the Bakekujira.”

In 1983, an intact whale skeleton was spotted floating off the shores of Anamizu, Ishikawa prefecture. The press jumped on the story naming it a “real-life bakekujira.”

Translator’s Note:

This article was done at the request of comic book writer Brandon Seifert, who does the incredibly cool folklore/horror comic Witch Doctor, as well as other things. If you are a folklore fan, I highly recommend his work. And look for the bakekujira to possibly pop up his boney head in one of Seifert’s upcoming comics!

Further Reading:

For more tales of ocean-going yokai, check out:

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Funa Yurei

Nirai Kanai

The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

Umibōzu – The Sea Monk

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.

What is an Umibozu?

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.

Translator’s Note:

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!

Further Reading:

Read more yokai tales on hyakumonogatari.com

Funa Yurei

Nure Onago – The Soaked Woman

The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

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