Umibozu

Nagasaki june 1824

So it had come to this. Shimizu Miyamoto had turned his back on his safe haven. And now he was here, seeking refuge in this perilous place. He couldn’t help but smile at the irony of it.

As he had left home he had had no idea what was to become of him. Before, his whole life had been planned out for him and there had been no uncertainties, but now his future was ambiguous. As a bastard son of the shogun he would have had a carefree life. Had he made the right decision or had he thrown it all away for something much worse? But everyone created their own purgatory. His couldn’t be worse than anyone else’s. And how could he regret his actions? He had not been able to bear living under his father’s feudal regime any longer. So he had decided to come here, to Dejima, an artificial island in the harbor of Nagasaki that was the only connection to the Western world in Japan, to look for a vessel that would take him to Europe, as far away from this dreadful country and its atrocious leaders as possible.

There were only a few offices, houses, and warehouses on Dejima itself, so Shimizu had had to return to Nagasaki harbor, across the only bridge on the small island, to gain information. It was late in the evening as he walked passed what seemed like a marketplace. It was abandoned, but he smelled the pungent stench of rotting fish intestines that had been left behind by the salesmen, and he could still see blood meandering through the cracks in the street. He was looking for a tavern, where he would hopefully find a European trader who would aid him in his needs.

He walked onto a dock and stopped as his gaze floated over the sea. It was restless all the way to the horizon, but somehow strangely appealing to him. He watched the foamy waves hit the shore and he felt a sense of freedom like never before. After strolling the streets for a while and making some inquiries, he found what he was looking for. In a small, murky-looking alley there was a sign on the wall that read The Watering Monk. A bit of a strange name for a tavern, Shimizu thought, but then again, this wasn’t the kind of establishment he was used to visiting in his former life. As he proceeded to the entrance, he swung away just in time to dodge a man storming out of the bar. The man fell on his knees, started liberating his stomach from whatever foul products he’d been poisoning it with the last couple of hours, and then crumpled to the ground, insensible, his head in his own vomit. Shimizu froze and stared at this, to his mind, somewhat bizarre occurrence. He pulled himself together and continued to the entrance.

As he opened the heavy wooden door, a variety of scents welcomed him, he saw a thick layer of smoke hanging in the whole room, and there was a cacophony of sounds. For a moment he felt reluctant to enter but continued nonetheless. He could not and would not turn away from this now that he was so close to unchaining himself. He took a seat at the shabby-looking bar and ordered a drink.

“You look a bit out of place in a stink hole like this,” the man next to him grunted. “Does your mother know you’re here?” Shimizu looked at him. The man was missing one eye and hadn’t bothered hiding it with a patch, so there was a nasty-looking hole where his right eye used to be. She doesn’t actually, Shimizu thought, but chose to ignore the drunken fisherman. When the taverner returned with his drink, Shimizu asked him if he knew a European trader who would be sailing back home anytime soon. “Not many, especially in this kind of weather,” the taverner said, and pointed out a roaring and mostly drunk-looking group of men. “But maybe you’re in luck. That crowd over there is setting sail tomorrow morning.”

Shimizu emptied his glass in one rapid tilt, set it on the bar, thanked the barman, and started walking towards the noisy group of sailors. As he arrived at their table, one of the drunken sailors shouted something to him in a foreign language. A bit taken aback, he asked, in his best English, who the commander of this group was. “That would be me!” a towering, muscular man said. He got up and Shimizu instantly felt like he had just shrunk a few inches on the spot. “What’s it to you?” the man asked, his pocked face hovering over Shimizu. “My name is Shimizu Miyamoto, and I was wondering if you could take me with you on your way back to Europe.” The tall man looked at Shimizu, studying him for a while, then he took one of Shimizu’s hands and started laughing. “Yes we got room for one more,” the man said with a smirk on his face “but you will have to work to earn your place and these hands don’t look like they’ve seen much labor in their sad excuse for a life. I’ll cut of my left nostril if it’s been more than one day!” Shimizu thought about these demeaning comments, then grabbed his purse and took out some gold coins. “This should cover your expenses, and I’m quite capable of working.” The man’s smirk turned into a smile. He took the gold and said, “Yes this covers it just fine. My name is Jacob Bootsma. We are Dutch traders. We leave tomorrow morning at the break of dawn. If you’re not there we’ll leave without you and with your gold.” “I’ll be there” Shimizu said.

“You really don’t want to go out to sea tomorrow” a shrill voice said from the crowd behind them, and both men turned to the source in surprise. “And why is that?” Jacob asked mockingly. “Because of the water monk,” the man said. “He dwells in the waters again. My nephew lost his ship and two crew members because of the Umibozu.” Shimizu had heard of this myth but wasn’t a very superstitious man. Jacob told the man to take his fairytales and stick them up a dark place.

“So tomorrow morning, dock five,” Jacob said to Shimizu. “Or are you scared of imaginary sea ghosts?” “No I’m not, so I’ll see you tomorrow. Oh, and next time your colleague wants to ask me what I want,” Shimizu said in a firm voice “I’ll appreciate him not associating my mother with that profession.” Jacob boomed, “You speak Dutch! You are full of surprises mister Miyamoto. I’m looking forward to our journey. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

As Shimizu made to leave the tavern to look for a place to sleep, the stranger who had told them about the Umibozu took his arm and said to him, “If you must go, remember to ignore the Umibozu. If you can manage to do that, it has no power and it will vanish.” Shimizu thanked him and left the tavern.

After a short and mostly sleepless night, Shimizu gathered his few possessions and started making his way to the docks. When he arrived at the appointed place, the sun wasn’t up yet, but there was already a lot of activity going on at dock five. Shimizu looked at the ship that would be his home for the next few months. It was a flute: a long ship with a wide belly, three masts, and a small deck. It wasn’t a big ship, so it didn’t need a large crew. Two flags fluttered on top of the mast: one Dutch flag and one showing the symbol of the United East Indian Company.

In front of the gangway there was some commotion. Four Japanese workers were shouting at Jacob, the tall commander Shimizu had talked to the night before in the tavern. “If you don’t get your asses on this ship,” Jacob said. “I will hang you onto the stern with a rope tied to one of your arms and drag you out to sea, so it’s your choice.” The workers seemed to ponder their options and reluctantly started to ascend the gangway.

“Good morning” Shimizu said. “Ah mister Miyamoto,” Jacob replied. “I was wondering if you would be here in time, considering that you look like you’re used to sleeping until the early afternoon.” He grinned. “Well, things aren’t always what they seem to be,” Shimizu said. “What was all the shouting about?” “It’s hard to get good laborers these days. We lost a few crew members due to sickness on our way here so we needed replacements, and we paid these men half of their wages up front. I’ll bet they already used that for killing brain cells in the tavern the last few days, and now they refused to come with us because they heard rumors about that water priest that old man told us about yesterday.” “You mean the Umibozu,” Shimizu said. “Umibollocks if you ask me,” Jacob said, laughing. “Now if you would be so kind as to get on board mister Miyamoto,” Jacob said with a mock bow. “We’re ready to leave, and I can’t wait to get of this island. I’ve been away from home far too long.” Shimizu got on board, and as the ship left the harbor, Shimizu took one last look at his native soil, hoping he had made the right decision.

As the day passed, he retreated to his bunk, took out his journal, and started writing.

June 23rd, 1824

Finally on my way. The sea is surprisingly serene today, and though it is a somewhat hostile environment, I’m glad the distance between me and my deficient life back in Japan is growing by the minute. I say hostile because there is a lot of tension going on between the crew members. After we left, some of the crew asked me about the disagreement between Jacob and the Japanese workers. I explained what was going on and told them about the legend of the Umibozu:

The Umibozu is a mythical creature that dwells in the ocean. It’s a leviathan. Its head has the shape of a monk; it has a slick grey or black, cloudlike torso; enormous glowing eyes; and serpentine limbs. It rises from calm waters. Its presence can be detected in the form of huge black shapes under water or inexplicable disturbances on the water, and it can be accompanied by other strange ocean phenomena, or even just feelings of dread. It will capsize a ship if anyone on it dares to speak of it. It is told that if nobody pays attention to it, it has no power and it will vanish. If it does get attention, however, things can get unpleasant, to say the least. It will ask for barrels so it can put people in them and let them fill with seawater so the people drown. The legend says to give the Umibozu bottomless barrels to avoid such a miserable death.

As I finished my story, the strangest thing happened. Some of the crew started laughing, but some of them looked scared and started praying to their Christian god. The laughing crew members began to tease the scared ones and the Japanese workers. This caused a polarization of the crew. I hope this will not turn out to be a problem on our journey. I talked to Jacob about this, but he just laughed and said that there is always pestering between the crew members, so it would be no problem. I sure hope he is right.

June 24th, 1824

As I feared, things haven’t gotten any better today. As I got up, the Japanese workers asked me why I had been so dumb as to tell the Dutchmen the story of you know what. As a Japanese person, I should know better than to disrespect such an atrocity. They actually believe in this nonsense, I thought, and I asked them if they thought the story of the Umibozu was true. Then, before I knew what was happening, one of the workers punched me hard in the face and told me to never talk of it again if I knew what was good for me. Unbelievable, but I don’t want too much trouble on my journey, so I told them I will remember not to. The atmosphere between the other crew members wasn’t much better, and things are starting to run amok between them. I’m tired of the hard work on board of this ship, so I’m going to get as much sleep as possible so I can cope with what will be waiting for me tomorrow.

June 25th, 1824

Things are really getting out of hand now. I’ve never seen so much violence in one place. Part of the crew just kept on bullying the Japanese workers. One of the bullies walked to the side of the ship and started shouting the name of the Umibozu. At this, one of the workers rushed to the shouting sailor and grabbed him, making both men fall into the sea. We searched for them, looking over the edge, but they were gone, and we haven’t seen them since. After that, some of the crew hauled up three wooden barrels and forced the three remaining Japanese workers into them, just to teach them a lesson, I guess. Meanwhile, the weather was changing, and all of a sudden the sea was stormy. When the sailors were putting the lids on the barrels, I made my way to Jacob to tell him what was going on. On my way to his cabin, a large wave swept the barrels from the deck and into the sea, with the Japanese workers in them. The huge waves crushed the barrels, and the workers drowned. This is going to sound ridiculous, but I could swear I saw the silhouette of a giant round head behind those waves. Jacob rushed by me and grabbed the first crew member he saw by the throat and asked what the… Well, he just asked in a rude way what was going on. The whole crew started shouting incomprehensibly and blaming one another. Jacob tried to restore order but it was in vain. It seemed the crew was possessed, and they just began to attack each other. So within a short period all of them were fighting with knives and all that they could find to hurt or even kill each other. All this time the storm was getting worse, people were being tossed around like rag dolls by the waves, and some of them ended up making their final trip: a one-way ticket to the depths of the savage sea. I had to get out of there to, if I don’t survive this madness, write down what happened here…

Then Shimizu heard a loud voice, “Mister Miyamoto, where are you? Come out and see what you and your rotten country fables have caused!” It was the unmistakable voice of Jacob and it sounded angry. Before Shimizu could act, he felt a blow to his head. Jacob took Shimizu’s journal in one hand and his left foot in the other and hauled his body onto the deck. Shimizu’s sight was blurry due to the hit on his head, but he could see that a total carnage had taken place while he had been writing in his journal. All of the crew, of which there weren’t many left, lay dead on the ship’s deck. He saw limbs and even severed heads all around the ship. “You see what you have made them do with your fairytales?!” Jacob demanded.

Jacob frantically paged through the journal and then threw it at Shimizu. “My whole crew died,” Jacob said in a fierce voice. “And I think you are part of the reason why. I was well on my way back to my girlfriends after months, and now I don’t even have a crew to get there.” “You poisoned my crew with an ancient myth created by your feeble Japanese minds.” The storm was still thriving, and at the moment Jacob picked up a piece of wood with which to smash in Shimizu’s head, Shimizu saw a large round head with big glowing eyes emerge out of the swirling sea, its long tentacles reaching for the ship. Shimizu stared in terror at the monstrosity. Jacob looked at Shimizu and then in the direction he was looking at. “What the fuck are you looking at? Are you afraid of waves? It’s only water. I’ll give you something to be scared of.” Jacob took Shimizu’s head, and as he lifted his other hand to deal Shimizu a fatal blow, Shimizu managed to escape Jacob’s grip and, in one quick movement, pushed Jacob over the ledge of the ship. As Jacob fell, he shouted something inaudible before vanishing forever. Shimizu got to his feet, peering down at the stormy waves, but he saw no sign of the leviathan he had just seen, or did he? He turned around and then slipped in someone’s bowels. As he fell, his head hit the railing, and everything went black.

“Ship ahoy!” a voice shouted. It was a Japanese trading ship on its way back to Nagasaki. The sea was calm and the sun was shining. The trading ship came up alongside the abandoned vessel, and the men got on board. The captain looked in horror at the massacre he saw. “We got a survivor sir,” a sailor shouted. The men took Shimizu to the captain as he revived. “Just ignore it, just ignore it, please!” Shimizu said. “What’s that all about?” a sailor asked. “Maybe he means your wife’s talking; that’s what we did before you married her” another sailor joked. At this, the whole crew laughed and the sailor stormed at the joker. “Break it up, or I’ll have you both swim back to Nagasaki” the captain said. “I found this lying next to him sir” a crew member said as he handed Shimizu’s journal to the captain. The captain read through the journal and then sighed. “Well well, looks like a case of mass insanity to me. It says that the crew went berserk over the story of the Umibozu…” Hearing that, Shimizu tried to grab the captain’s throat with both hands. “Ignore it, you hear me? You don’t want to tempt the beast!” The crew members were just in time to stop Shimizu. “Take this madman aboard our ship and tie him up in the cargo hold. We’ll have a lot of questions for him when we are back ashore.”

Back on the Japanese trading ship, Shimizu was locked up in the cargo hold. One of the sailors, one who hadn’t joined the crew on the Dutch ship, asked what had happened, looking anxiously at the carnage on the other ship. “They all went crazy over some stupid story about the Umibozu, I think,” a sailor said, laughing. “Don’t joke about that,” someone said. “Yeah don’t mention that name again if you want to keep your ugly face bruise free” another replied. “You can’t be serious guys. You actually believe this bullshit?” the sailor asked in disbelief. “Try to say its name again and see what happens, you asshole” a scared-looking sailor stated.

“Set sail now. We have to get back to Nagasaki as soon as possible,” the captain said to his commanding officer. “Looks like there’s a storm coming . . . ”