Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Funa-Yūrei, "Marine Spirits", Japanese Ghosts of the Sea


Today's story is about 水, water.  It's a ghost story, but since the ghosts are popularly known, it sort of identifies itself as a yōkai, with distinctive appearance and patterns.

It even has its own card in the Obake Karuta deck.

However, it has to do with humans, and it is a ghost story, after all, so I'll tell you the story, then tell you about some of its habits afterward.  By the way, the stories will be getting scarier and scarier from this entry.  (Though, I've always had an irrational fear of today's ghosts in particular...)


Funa-Yūrei, "Ship Ghosts", or more popularly translated as "Marine Spirits", and found under a great many tale titles, such as "Strange Seas" and "Tide of the Returning Ghosts", etc.  There are as many Funa-Yūrei stories as there are fishing villages in Japan, and a lot of them have a little something or other thrown in for uniqueness or to differentiate the Funa-Yūrei and their habits/places of hauntings.  Regardless, this version I'll tell is one of the older ones from an area I lived in growing up, and those all followed the same sort of legend.


One night, after a storm, a pair of fishermen set out in their boat to try to catch a larger net of fish in those favourable conditions.  They went out to sea and let their boat bob along the surface, looking for a good place to cast out.  After some time, they began to hear a noise far off in the distance.

"Another storm?  Is that thunder?" one asked.  It became louder and louder, coming closer and closer, until the fishermen could hear the sound clearly.  It was a steady, rhythmic drumming, coming from another boat coming somewhere out on the water.  After some time, a faint light appeared, and a boat with crew began to sail toward the fishermens' boat.  The odd greenish light glowed, and the drumming continued, until the ship had caught up to the smaller boat.

The drum beats ceased immediately, and the crew of the vessel stood silent, their heads down, only the soft sound of the waves and the wind as their thin white robes rustled gently.

The fishermen noted that the crew looked skeletal, ghostly, and were wearing white kimono, the fabric crossed right over left, as only the dead are dressed in.  Upon their heads they wore triangular caps of the kind which adorns the deceased during a Buddhist funeral.  The leader of the haunted boat raised his head and emitted a low moan,

"Inada..." ("Ladle...")

The rest of the crew, their heads still down, swayed back and forth, joining in the chant.

"Inada...  inada... inada..."

The two fishermen looked at one another, clearly seeing the skeletal remains and rotting flesh of this terrifying crew.

"Inada?" the fisherman whispered.  "A ladle?"  The ghosts' chants fell into rhythm fast and eerie as their earlier drumming.

"Inada!  Inada!  Inada!"

The fishermen slowly picked up their boat's wooden ladle and placed it in the outstretched bony fingers of the ghost.

From GeGeGe no Kitaro.

The crew continued their chant.

"Inata!  Inata!  Inata!  INATA!  INATA!  INATA!" ("Fishermen!  Fishermen!  Fishermen!")

Suddenly, the ghosts each produced a wooden ladle of their own, and began scooping water from the ocean into the fishermens' boat, sinking and killing them.

The End

Sometimes, the ghosts look just like strangely glowing people, or rotted zombies, depending on how long they have been dead.  The fishermen either die and suddenly appear as ghosts on the Funa-Yūrei boat, joining their cursed crew, or else take the place of one of the ghosts, which is allowed to pass on to the next world.

In early recorded works, the authors clarified that the Buddhist funereal dress was an important factor, as, during the O-bon festival, no one should go out on the sea at night, for the 精霊舟, shōryōbune, "soul ships", set sail on that night are reserved for the dead to sail away on, and if your ship is out there, you will be taken to Hell by Enma Dai-oh for daring to intermingle on the waters being used by the sacred dead for passing on into the spirit world.

Sometimes, however, the shōryōbune will fail to set off in time to let the spirits catch on board, and these ghosts will therefore wander the seas looking for people to take their place.  They most often appear after storms, as the water will be quiet and calm, and the soft sound you hear is not the waves, but the whispering of the spirits, excited to see you.

Sekien's Funa-Yūrei. Look closely at the waves to see the ghostly image of the Funa-Yūrei in their boat with ladles.

Incidentally, if you don't have a ladle on your ship, the Funa-Yūrei will sink you anyway.  Even more rise, not on a boat, but straight from the water and circle you, glowing and moaning, until the waves they generate overtakes your boat, and you drown.

From the anime, Kyogoku Natsuhiko Kousetsu Hyaku Monogatari.

The strange glow comes from a very long time ago, when lighthouses were lit by a signal fire, and the Funa-Yūrei would confuse the fishermen by leading them after the glow, thinking it was land, out further and further into the ocean so that they can surround the boat and ask for the ladle.

And this is why fishermen I know (and a great number of fishermen in Japan) always carry a wooden ladle along on their boat for luck.  And this lucky ladle cleverly has holes poked in the bottom, so that the Funa-Yūrei will be unable to scoop water into the boat, and the fishermen can get safely away.

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