Japanese tale #13 – Umibozu


Once upon a time, in a small village upon the sea of Japan, lived a fisherman and his only son. The man was old and stern and the young man very shy. Like all their neighbours, they were both very poor and had to work very hard to get their fill.

Everyday, father and son left their home before sunrise, pushing their tiny boat on the deep blue seas and hoping for the best.

And every evening, they sat together in their modest house, to mend their nets and creels before drifting into sleep.

One day though, fish went missing. Day after day after day, boats kept going out, farther and farther upon the waves. Yet no squids, yellowtail or bonitos could be found.

It was like all sea life had simply vanished.

Seeing their dried fish stock dropping low, the son was getting more and more anxious.

– Soon we will only have seaweeds to eat. Oh father what are we gonna do?

The fisherman, face lined and battered by the salt, had spent hours gazing at the tranquil sea. No wind could be felt nor clouds seen at the horizon. The world seemed to hold its breath.

He simply stood up and went to launch his boat.

– Father it’s useless we…

Sharp as a hook, old eyes caught him:

– Grab our last fish barrel and come.

They rowed and they rowed under unforgiving sun. Soon, the coast had disappeared and only wide blue seas remained.

The young man started to grab his nets

– Don’t.

– But Father…

The old man turned to him, jaw set and eyes piercing:

– Open the barrel.

The son complied, not quite getting what his father’s odd antics were about.

– Good. Whatever happens from now on, don’t utter a single word.

And so they waited in uncomfortable silence amid the pungent smell of dried fish. Night finally fell upon the sea, moon reflecting eerily on the dark blue waters.

Suddenly, a ripple shook the surface.

The young fisherman turned wide eyes to his father and started opening his mouth.

– Hush you fool!

Beneath the small boat, a dark mass lazily rose. Black slippery skin slowly emerged from the depth, higher and higher up to the sky. Soon, towering the ship, a giant round and bald head with two bulging eyes gazed at the two fishermen.

The son couldn’t move a finger. He simply stared with dread at the monstrous creature.

Keeping his voice as normal as possible, the father ordered:

– Don’t speak. Everything is gonna be fine.

He slowly put his son’s hands on the barrel and whispered:

– The offering has to be made by young hands. Just pour the barrel into the sea.

Shaking badly, the young man did what he was asked.

As soon as the dried fishes hit the water, long sprawling limbs hungrily grabbed them. And as quickly as it has appeared, the monster was gone, swallowed again by the abyss.

The old fisherman put a hand on his son’s trembling shoulder:

– You did well boy. Now let’s hurry back home. Things are going to get dangerous here.

Father and son rowed and rowed, never resting or looking back, until they reached their village.

It was just time: as the sun rose, clouds gathered and the wind started to howl. The sea, once smooth as a mirror, was now swelling,  huge waves coming to crush upon the shore.

And at the surface, gaping villagers could see silver sparks frolicking beneath the foam: the fish had finally returned.

Notes :

Umibozu are huge youkai sea monsters, mostly represented as giant black silhouettes (though tiny umibozu exist). Their name “sea-monk” comes from the shape of their heads, smooth and bald as buddhist monks’ ones.

They are said to sink ships if some requirement are not fulfilled. In some tales, it’s advised to keep silent, in others you must offer a barrel or lapel (just making sure it’s broken or pierced otherwise the creature will use them to fill the boat with sea water… and sink it). Those monsters are also linked to sea gods and some stories encourage sailors to offer fish to get on their good side.

Umibozu could have been inspired by real animals, like sperm whales, giant octopus or jellyfishes. They could also been used to embody natural phenomenons then unexplained such as unpredictable rogue waves.

[pictures sources :  1 / 2 / 3]

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