the online database of Japanese folkore

Umishika

海鹿
うみしか

Translation: sea deer
Habitat: open seas south of Japan
Diet: carnivorous; fish and sometimes fishermen

Appearance: Umishika are dangerous sea monsters found in the open waters off the southern coast of Kyūshū. As they live underwater, their appearance is not well known or described. Umishika attacking fishing boats have been described as shadowy forms lurking beneath the waves. They are greatly feared by Kyūshū’s island fishermen.

Behavior:  Little is known about umishika’s natural behavior, as they spend their lives deep underwater in the open ocean and thus are rarely seen by humans. They hunt medium-sized fish like skipjack tuna. They are aggressive, and will attack fishing boats that enter their feeding grounds.

Origin: Umishika come from the folklore of the island of Yakushima. A famous tale describes how umishika are responsible for a taboo against fishing during the 16th day of the 5th month of the old lunar calendar.

Legends: Long ago, the 16th day of the 5th month was a holy day for the mountain gods. All of the gods and spirits of the mountains gathered together to have a large banquet on that day, and so villagers were forbidden from entering the mountains.

One year on that day, a fishing boat from the village of Issō went out to catch skipjack tuna in the open sea northwest of the island. A great many fish were swarming near the surface of the sea, and the fishermen were certain there was a large shoal nearby. When the boat arrived at the spot, the fishermen were delighted by how easily they effortlessly caught one fish after another.

All of a sudden, a large, dark shape appeared beneath the water’s surface. An elder fishermen called out, “It’s an umishika!” The fishermen hurriedly pulled in their lines, raised the sails, and prepared to return to shore. But the umishika had spotted them.

The umishika chased the ship, dipping in and out between the waves. The wind blew against the boat and made escape difficult. The fishermen rowed with all of their might. They tried to slow its advance by dumping all of the tuna they had caught into their wake. But before long the umishika was upon them.

As the umishika was about to climb onto the ship, one of the fishermen grabbed an oar and thrust it with all of his might into the monster’s open mouth. The umishika fell back into the sea and stopped pursuing the boat. The fishermen rowed nonstop back to shore, exhausted from their effort but grateful for their lives.

The villagers decided that on that day it would be forbidden to enter not only the mountains, but the sea as well. From then on, both hunters and fishermen stayed home on the 16th day of the 5th month to make offerings and hold festivals for the gods of the mountains and seas.

Alphabetical list of yōkai