Thursday, June 02, 2016

Japan's 'Ghost Ship' Phenomenon

We've all heard the term 'ghost ship'...referencing a wayward vessel with no living soul on board. A similar phenomenon has been occurring on the coasts of western Japan for almost 5 years.

When corpses or body parts (ex. human feet in Washington & British Columbia) are continuously discovered, someone's curiosity and imagination can go in several directions searching for answers. So the question is...why do corpse-laden boats continue to wash up on Japan’s hazy western coast?

On board are crews of skeletons, partially or fully decomposed, some only heads, others only limbs. All of them long dead. It’s a grisly scene played out over and over again as hundreds of these boats and their gruesome cargo have been washing ashore in Japan during the last five years.

On a recent early morning, a 71-year-old retired Japanese fisherman received a call from his colleagues at the town's civilian coast guard. A black mass bobbling in the water had been spotted hooked to a distant buoy.

"When I saw the boat, I immediately knew that it was from North Korea," he said. There had been similar vessels more than 30 feet long, made of wood, its flat-bottomed hull covered in black tar.

"Then, 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 said. Later that day, they discovered two more boats and a grisly cargo of 10 bodies, all badly decomposed.

Dozens of North Korean boats drift ashore in Japan each year. Many float eerily out of the haze with a crew of bodies, adding to the mystery of a country that cloaks itself in secrecy.

A flotilla of the 14 ghost boats, carrying more than 30 decomposing corpses, has washed ashore since late last year along a 1,000-mile stretch of the west coast, leaving Japanese investigators puzzled. Who were these people? What happened to them?

The boats bore unmistakable signs of North Korean origin. Their hulls were emblazoned with painted numbers and Korean script; one was marked "State Security Department," and another "Korean People's Army." A backpack, found on another, had a pin bearing the portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.

All of those on board appeared to be male, though some were so badly decomposed investigators couldn't be certain. All wore civilian clothing. Autopsies found that they had been dead for about two months, but the cause of death was elusive.

Perhaps they were defectors, analysts surmised. But then, a new theory surfaced.

Satoru Miyamoto, a North Korea expert at Japan's Seigakuin University near Tokyo, said that the men on board were probably fishermen. By studying photographs of the boats and the vessels' numbers, he deduced they probably belonged to the North Korean military's commercial branch.

The basis for those conclusions might be found in a series of undated photographs released in November of dictator Kim Jong Un touring a military fishery base, grinning and examining blocks of frozen fish.

Workers, Kim said, should "realize their lifetime desire by catching more fish for the service persons and civilians," according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

"So the military has been sending soldiers out onto the sea to fish," Miyamoto said. "But the soldiers don't have any training, so they sometimes get lost at sea."

The crews may have run into extreme weather, a typhoon perhaps. Boats may have flipped and righted themselves again. Those aboard probably drowned, starved or succumbed to hypothermia.

"This isn't something new for us, so people are just saying 'oh no, not again,'" a fisherman states.

"We have a rumor of a ghostly figure of a lady appearing at the pier," he said. "But that's been a rumor since way before the North Korean ships began arriving. So probably, she's just one of those people who jumped to death from the cliff." The occasional body will be discovered in the sand after drifting in from Yaseno, the notorious cliffs which are a favorite jumping-off point for Japanese people intent on suicide. - Various sources, including The Huffington Post and Los Angeles Times

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