the online database of Japanese folklore



Translation: wandering ship
Alternate names: yūreibune, yoiyoibune, mōjabune
Habitat: open seas
Diet: none

Appearance: Mayoibune are ghost ships which sail the Sea of Japan on bright, moonlit nights during the Bon holiday—the night of the 15th in particular. They are the ghosts of sailors who died in shipwrecks and never passed on to the next life.

Behavior: Mayoibune appear to sailors who stay on the seas late at night. They begin as phantom sounds—unpleasant cackles which sound like dozens of people, although no people or ships are anywhere to be seen. Next, strange orbs of fire appear on the surface of the water and drift about. Then, an evil wind blows in from the northwest. Finally, a ghostly ship comes into view, sailing against the wind.

Interactions: Sailors who encounter mayoibune are haunted by strange sights and sounds. Those who flee and return to shore usually die shortly afterwards from the mental trauma. Those foolish enough to sail closer to a mayoibune are guaranteed to die in a shipwreck.

Origin: Mayoibune are a type of funa yūrei from Fukuoka Prefecture. Similar ghost ships can be found all along Japan’s coasts, known by many names such as yūreibune (ghost ship), mōjabune (ship of the dead), and yoiyoibune (“Row! Row!” boat).

The northwesterly wind which accompanies a mayoibune is called tamakaze. Tamakaze normally only blows over the Sea of Japan in the winter. It is dangerous for fishermen due to the strong gusts and heavy rain it brings. It is also said to carry the souls of the dead. These lost souls wander the sea, never having made it to the world of the dead.

In the old Japanese lunar calendar, the full moon fell on the 15th night of each month—it was the brightest night and thus good for fishing and hunting. But during the Obon holiday, the dead return from the afterlife to visit the living. Working on the sea was prohibited during these nights; fishermen were told to return home before nightfall to be with their families. Accordiong to superstition, bad things happen to people who break this taboo. Meeting a mayoibune is just one example.

Legends: Long ago, four young men from Hatsu, Fukuoka went out fishing during Obon on the night of the 15th. Normally, fishermen take this day off as a holiday, but these men did not care at all about the taboo. They had the waters all to themselves, and caught a great number of mackerel. But as they fished, severed heads began to float up out of the sea. The heads rolled about, bumping into each other and laughing. The fishermen were terrified. They pulled in their nets and began to hurry home. That’s when they noticed that their entire catch was not mackerel, but straw sandals! The men finally made it home, but could not forget the terror of that night. One by one, they went mad and died.

Alphabetical list of yōkai