In a sleepy village on the western coast of Japan, a fisherman spotted a ship in trouble. So, naturally, he hauled the rickety vessel back to shore. But then he noticed something sinister: the ship was deserted. Plus, there was a putrid smell hanging in the air. Was this all part of the terrible secret that had been haunting the Sea of Japan?
You see, toward the end of October 2015, something strange began to happen in Japan. In fact, the residents of coastal towns along a 1,000-mile stretch – from Fukui Prefecture on the Japanese main island up to Hokkaido in the north – began to report some bizarre finds washing up on their shores.
At first, this seemed like nothing out of the ordinary. After all, fishing boats are often shaken by storms, while all sorts of flotsam and jetsam can make its way on to any coast.
However, these discoveries were entirely different. Yes, since late 2015 at least 14 ghost ships have been found floating close to Japanese shores. What’s more, each vessel has had a sinister surprise in store for the rescue crews who climbed aboard.
The ships themselves were each around 30 or 40 feet in length and made from wood. But the most surprising thing was what else they had in common. They each contained the dead, skeletal bodies of their crews. Yet how they had come to this fate was unknown.
Surprisingly, though, these so-called ghost ships are not a new phenomenon. In 2011, for instance, more than 50 such ships were discovered. And over the subsequent years, more and more vessels have mysteriously made their way to Japan, too. However, officials have yet to declare just how many bodies have been found on board.
There are two things that make the latest incidents stand out, though: the frequency of the discoveries, and the alarming amount of human remains recovered from the ships. For instance, 12 vessels carrying more than 20 bodies between them were recovered over a five-week period beginning on October 27, 2015. And by 2016, that figure had risen to 14 ships, with over 30 bodies recovered from the wrecks.
And the specific incident referred to earlier? Well, in November 2015 retired fisherman Shizuo Kakutani, 71, was alerted to a boat drifting in the sea off Monzen, a town in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture. Kakutani made his grisly discovery while he helped the coastguard to retrieve the vessel.
“As we were pulling the boat to this port, we noticed a pair of legs sticking out from underneath, bobbing up and down with the waves,” he told the L.A. Times. Needless to say, Kakutani was probably more than a little surprised.
However, it was only the start of a gruesome day – which saw the recovery of two further boats and a total of ten bodies. The vessels also carried rudimentary fishing equipment and basic cooking utensils – signs of a simple life on board.
Later that month, another three boats were found some 80 miles down the coast at Echizen in Fukui Prefecture. Investigators here found three bodies on board and, reportedly, six skulls. Two further victims, meanwhile, were found without their heads.
But where have these mysterious ships come from? And what could have caused so many of their crews to meet with such grisly ends? Evidence collected from some of the boats has suggested that they began their fateful journeys sailing from North Korea. That troubled country is, after all, west across the Sea of Japan, even if it is hundreds of miles away.
Moreover, some of the vessels were marked in Korean script. For instance, one of the boats bore the words “Korean People’s Army.” Another had the legend “State Security Department.”
Plus, a battered North Korean flag was found on one of the vessels. And on another still a backpack was discovered containing a pin depicting the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Admittedly, some of the boats were found without identifying features. Yet their physical similarities to the North Korean ships have led many to believe that they were all part of the same ill-fated fleet.
Some have even suggested that the bodies are those of defectors from North Korea. Perhaps they became lost at sea while attempting to escape the state’s notoriously oppressive regime. Experts, however, have pointed out that a far less perilous escape route could be found by simply sailing to South Korea. Indeed, defectors would have little reason to attempt the dangerous crossing to Japan.
There is also little evidence to suggest that the boats were crewed by North Korean spies. Instead, the deceased sailors are thought to have had an altogether more prosaic origin. They could, in fact, be the victims of strict new fishing policies in North Korea.
This is according to experts with contacts in the famously secretive country. Apparently, leader Kim Jong-un has been putting pressure on the fishing industry to increase the size of their catches in order to feed the nation’s growing army. So, realizing the losses that they would incur, fishermen allegedly began to allow soldiers to catch their own fish instead.
“That means inexperienced sailors go out to sea, even in terrible conditions and with no idea what they are doing,” Jiro Ishimaru of Asia Press told The Guardian. “They don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they are soldiers, so they wear civilian clothes, which is why none of the bodies found in Japan was in uniform.”
However, authorities have yet to reach any definitive conclusions about the true nature of Japan’s mysterious ghost ships. Without any official channels of inquiry to pursue, then, the bodies have been quietly cremated and the vessels destroyed.
Since the beginning of 2016, no new reports have made the headlines. But the winter weather is drawing near, and North Korea’s food shortage shows no signs of abating. Could it be only a matter of time before more grisly ghost ships are once again spotted along the Japanese coast?