Uncannytober 2022 Illustrations
The third Monday of July is Umi no Hi (海の日), Marine Day, so this month on Uncanny Japan I decided to talk about three otherworldly ocean creatures: Ship Goddesses, Boat Ghosts, and Sea Monks. Funadama (船霊), funa yurei (船幽霊), and umi bozu (海坊主).
This month’s Bedtime Story (over on Patreon) is a folktale I translated called: The Umbrella Sea Monster.
Hey, hey everyone. Welcome to Uncanny Japan. The background last month in June’s podcast was rain popping on my umbrella while standing at the shore. It’s now July and the rainy season is officially over and it’s sweltering. The cicada are already out, but instead of recording them, I decided to come back to the rocky beach and catch some more cooling ocean sounds without the rain. Why? Because this month I have a theme, the ocean, or better yet, the spooky things associated with the ocean.
Umi No Hi
The third Monday of July in Japan celebrates Umi no Hi or Marine Day, sometimes called Ocean Day, a day on which you’re encouraged to celebrate all things sea related, or you could just go to the beach. Keeping that in mind, today I’m going to tell you about three interesting and or creepy sea related beings.
The first is a Shinto god or spirit called Funadama. The word Funadama consists of two characters, Funa, ship, and Dama, spirit. Or you can also find the second character often written with a different kanji that means sphere, ball, or jewel.
What is a Funadama or Funadamasama? It’s actually a kind of Shinto goddess or guardian deity of ships and boats. She is prayed to for protection before any seafaring vessel heads out into open waters. The waters can be the ocean, a river, or even a lake.
In order to properly pay respects to Funadama, with ships in particular, a hole is carved at the bottom of the main mast and inside are placed several items called Goshintai, basically offerings to the deity. These offerings include two dolls, one male and one female, a pair of dice, 12 sen, which are old coins, five grains of wheat or millet or some kind of grain, and a lock of a woman’s hair.
So those are the most common items you read about, but in some places they also include old timey makeup, rouge or lipstick, white face powder, and I’m hoping this isn’t makeup related, but even mouse droppings.
The idea is that you pay your proper respects to Funadama and you and your ship remain safe on the seas and will most likely bring home a big catch. If, however, you start experiencing smaller holes, lots of bad unexpected weather, or if you come across a dead drowned body, it is written, you will need to replace all your Goshintai with new ones, re-pray, and then hope for better luck.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the ship goddess is in fact a goddess, so back in the day it was considered bad luck for a woman to ride in a boat or a ship. The men feared a woman passenger or a shipmate might make the goddess jealous and angry. A jealous and angry goddess leads to dangerous weather, a scarcity of fish, and even sunken ships. So it is written.
The second otherworldly creature I want to talk to you about is the Funayūrei. It’s interesting to note that the characters in both Funadama and Funayūrei are very similar. The first character is the same boat or ship, Funa, Fune. The last character is also the same, Dama in one, Funadama, or Rei in the other, but they both mean spirit. However, with the Funayūrei, you have the middle character that turns the spirit into a less benign one and more of an unsettling ghostly one. Yūrei means ghosts. So Funayūrei is literally boat ghosts.
These aren’t good ghosts either, but bad ones. They’re thought to be people drowned at sea or in any kind of body of water, and they return to take others down with them.
There are many tales describing occurrences with Funayūrei. Some are similar and some are quite wacky. Here are some of the noted incidences, the similar ones.
They appear on foggy, rainy, or stormy nights, or during a full or new moon. There can be a single ghost who looks as if he’s standing on top of the water staring at you with fiery eyes, or there can be many who float up beside the boat and prepare to sink it.
The boat ghosts, or sea phantoms, we could call them, will stop at nothing to sink your ship. Sometimes they don’t even appear, but do other mischievous things, like resemble bobbing lights in the middle of the ocean, making the boat captain think he’s sailing toward land, a lighthouse or a bonfire, when in fact he’s being lured farther and farther out to sea. They’ve also been known to cause compasses to break or to go haywire.
The stories I like best go something like this. It’s a foggy night, but the moon is full, the water still, and you and your shipmates are out on the deck shooting the breeze. You’re far from shore, so you think it’s odd when you hear a distant sound, something like a drumbeat, that slowly gets louder as it gets closer.
It stops, and then you hear a sloshing sound as if someone or something is swimming up in the water next to your boat. Through the fog you can see one, no, two, no, now more than a dozen men appearing through the fog. They’re wearing white robes and a triangle-shaped cloth on their foreheads. They’re all in various stages of decay.
They latch on to the sides of your boat, reach in and start asking for a long-handled ladle. If you have one, you can give it to them, but they will, scoop after scoop, fill your vessel with water until it sinks.
You can refuse to give them your ladle, or honestly not have one on board with you, but that will only enrage them to the point that they start rocking your boat until it tips over and you and your shipmates are all lost. Either way, everyone drowns.
The trick, it is said, is to keep a ladle with the bottom cut out when you go out to sea, so after you hand it over, try as they might, they can’t fill your boat with water. I’ve read that even to this day, as a kind of talisman against the superstition, some boats will not leave the harbor unless they have a bottomless ladle on board.
The third creature is sometimes considered a subset of the Funayūrei, but with a more, what, yokai feel. He’s called the Umibōzu, or literally the sea monk.
There are two theories about why he’s labeled a monk. One idea is that he is a disgruntled spirit of a drowned monk. The other belief is that it comes from the creature’s head that rises out of the water suddenly, it’s all big and it’s bald, and it looks like a monk. Some say it also looks as if it’s praying.
Either way, the Umibōzu is not a friendly thing to run into on the high seas. It’s found more often farther away from the shore than the Funayūrei. Its mode of destruction is to suddenly pop up its big black bald head and then break the ship or capsize it. Its eyes glow red, and it’s reported to, when it’s said to actually have a mouth, to sport an evil grin. It’s also said to be extremely large. I read that the only weakness it has is cigarette smoke.
So there you have it, three oceanly spirits, one good, two not so. And I suppose the moral of the story is that to always have dice, a lock of a woman’s hair, and mouse poop on hand, or maybe you could just take up smoking again.
Thank you so much for listening, and I want to, at the very end today, add a secret thank you to someone who wishes not to be named for my new mic. I love it, it sounds fantastic, and it’s so much easier to work with than the old one.
I will talk to you all again when the weather gets even hotter than it is now, and you will probably hear cicadas in the background. Bye bye.
The intro/outro music of Uncanny Japan is a song by Christiaan Virant (from the album Ting Shuo).
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