The “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series has great fun with ghost ships like the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman and the term “skeleton crew” has come to mean a minimal group of people running a project. However, nothing chills the souls of sailors like encountering a real ghost ship manned by real skeletons. That’s why there’s a great deal of concern surrounding 11 ghost ships found in the Sea of Japan with no crews on board but skeletons and corpses.
The mystery started in early November when four empty wooden ships were found in the Sea of Japan, the body of water between Japan and Russia, South Korea and North Korea. Since then, an additional seven wooden vessels have been found, with the Coast Guard reporting at least 20 skeletons and decomposing corpses on them. The most recently discovered boat was brought to port in Fukui and reportedly contained seven bodies.
Sailors have many tales of ghost ships. The Mary Celeste was found in the Atlantic Ocean in 1872 with its cargo, valuables and a six months’ supply of food and water still on board but no passengers nor crew. Its mystery inspired a mystery: Arthur Conan Doyle's "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement." After the wreck of the SS Valencia passenger steamer in 1906 killed 100 people off the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, witnesses reported seeing lifeboats rowed by skeletons.
What kind of ghostly story will be told about today’s mysterious ghost ships of Japan? Nothing quite as scary as the Mary Celeste but just as sad as the Valencia. The vessels contained fishing nets, hooks and clothing that indicated they were most likely either North Korean fishing boats or boats being used by refugees to escape that country. Since 2013, over 175 such boats have been found by the Japanese coast guard, including one with four men who claimed to be North Korean fishermen but could have been refugees.
While the Black Pearl and the Mary Celeste make great stories, the reality that ghost ships are being created by refugees escaping oppressive regimes is a sad tale about our current times.