the online database of Japanese folkore

Bakekujira

化鯨
ばけくじら

Translation: ghost whale
Alternate names: hone kujira (“bone whale”)
Habitat: Sea of Japan
Diet: none

Appearance: Bakekujira are animated whale skeletons which sail near the surface of the sea, rising as they did in life when they needed air to breathe. They are followed by a host of eerie birds and strange fish, and appear on rainy nights near coastal whaling villages.

Interactions: In olden days, when whales were still plentiful in the Sea of Japan, a whale sighting was a blessing for the residents of the poor fishing villages. A village could reap huge amounts of wealth from the meat and oil in a single whale. Such a bounty did not come without a price, however. Many fishermen claimed that the souls of these whales lived on as bakekujira, seeking revenge against the humans who took their lives. Those who witnessed a bakekujira were infected with its horrible curse, which they brought back to their villages when they returned home. The whale’s curse brought famine, plague, fires, and other kinds of disasters.

Legends: One rainy night long ago, some fishers living on the Shimane peninsula witnessed an enormous white shape off the coast in the Sea of Japan. Squinting their eyes, it appeared to them to be a whale swimming offshore. Excited for the catch, they rallied the townspeople, who grabbed their spears and harpoons and took to their boats to hunt down and catch their quarry.

They soon reached the whale, but no matter how many times they hurled their weapons not one of them struck true. When they looked closer, through the dark, rain-spattered water’s surface, they realized why; what they thought was a white whale was actually a humongous skeleton swimming in the sea. It lacked even a single bit of flesh on its body.

At that moment, the sea became alive with a host of strange fish that nobody had ever seen before. The sky swarmed with eerie birds which nobody could recognize and the likes of which had never been seen before. The ghost whale then turned sharply out to sea, and swiftly vanished into the current, taking all the strange fish and birds with it, never to be seen again.

The terrified villagers returned home, realizing that the skeletal whale must have been a bakekujira—a whale turned into a vengeful ghost. While the bakekujira was never seen again, other villages in Shimane felt the whale’s curse. They were consumed by conflagrations and plagued by the infectious diseases that followed whale beachings.

Alphabetical list of yōkai