MIYAZAWA BEACH, Japan — The weather-beaten wood fishing boat still harbored its secrets as it lodged in the sand, frigid waves beating against its side. All that remained were a few clues, strewn across the deck.
Climbing aboard this week, I saw a bulb of garlic, tangled fishing nets and ropes, a yellow cable knit sweater covered in sand. Then there were the hints of the boat’s origins: a jar of brown sauce that might be gochujang, a Korean fermented red chili paste, and several boxes of cigarettes, bearing labels in Korean that warned, “smoking is the main cause of cancer and heart disease.”
Eight men died on this 40-foot boat that washed ashore here on the Oga peninsula along Japan’s northwestern coast late last month. The Coast Guard found their bodies, some reduced almost to skeletons, on the boat, which is believed to have come from North Korea. But what exactly the fishermen were doing and how they found their way to Japan remains a mystery.
The boat that landed on Miyazawa Beach in Akita prefecture was just one of 76 fishing vessels that have ended up on Japanese shores since the beginning of the year, 28 of them in November alone.
In the past two weeks, at least seven boats have arrived in Akita, all of them bearing signs that they came from North Korea. One of them carried eight live crew members to Yurihonjo, a medium-sized port town in Akita, where they were kept in police custody for more than a week before being transferred to an immigration facility in Nagasaki last Saturday. Japan’s Immigration Bureau said the men will be returned to North Korea.
With tensions mounting on the Korean Peninsula as the North’s nuclear and missile programs continue to advance, the arrival of this ghostly armada has stoked anxiety in Japan, where residents are questioning the motives of the fishermen and those who may have sent them.
“I am wondering why so many of these have all of a sudden come in such a short time,” said Kazuko Komatsu, 66, who lives in a house close to the marina in Yurihonjo. North Korea, she said, “is a mysterious country. We don’t know so much. I don’t know if they are coming here to escape or whether they just accidentally drifted here.”
For years, North Korean fishing boats, mostly ghost ships that ran aground either empty or carrying the dead bodies of their crew, have arrived in Japan, often in the fall and winter months when rough weather roils the sea and conditions grow dangerous for crews using outdated boats and equipment.
The recent rise in numbers of fishing boats landing on Japan’s western coast has spooked local residents, whose views of North Korea are shaped by media accounts of the hermit kingdom and stories of Japanese citizens abducted by the North.
Suspicions are particularly high when live fishermen have come ashore. This year, 18 North Korean crew members have landed on beaches in Japan, the highest number in the last five years.
The crews have told authorities that they hit bad weather and suffered mechanical problems on their boats before drifting with the currents toward Japan. But some Japanese doubt those stories, suspecting darker purposes.
Those doubts were fanned last month when Japan’s Coast Guard discovered a North Korean boat anchored near an island off Hokkaido. When questioned, crew members confessed that some of the boat’s 10 crew members had gone ashore and taken refrigerators, televisions, washing machines and a motorcycle from fishing shacks. Police in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, say they are still questioning the fishermen and have not determined whether they will be arrested.
In Yurihonjo, where the eight living North Korean fishermen washed up in a fishing boat on Nov. 23, a lack of information has fueled speculation. “Are they spies?” read a headline in the Akita Sakigake Shimpo, a local newspaper.
Outside a grocery store in Yurihonjo earlier this week, Mariko Abe, 66, said she was suspicious of the fishermen’s motives. “Maybe they were trying to kidnap some people,” she said. Her friend, Tomoe Goto, 41, said she wondered if the fishermen were trying to defect. She also worried that there were other crew members, unaccounted for, hiding somewhere in town.
Unlike in South Korea, where authorities disclosed details about a North Korean soldier’s dramatic escape through the heavily guarded border with South Korea last month, the police in Akita have been frugal with details about the North Koreans arriving here.
Local police in Yurihonjo confirmed that the eight fishermen identified themselves as North Korean and told officials they had run into some kind of mechanical trouble.
Yoshinobu Ito, deputy chief of the Yurihonjo Police Department, declined to say if they had applied for asylum, or what other information the police had learned from the men during the nine days they stayed at the police station.
“There are parts of the press reports that were accurate and parts that were not,” Mr. Ito said.
The Akita prefectural police said immigration authorities had issued emergency landing permits to the fishermen and determined they were not spies. But Shogi Hashimoto, a superintendent at Akita police headquarters, said, “we cannot tell you the criteria of how we assumed they are not spy agents.”
Fears about North Korean spies entering Japan surface regularly. Such agents are known to have abducted Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in Akita, the police said they had arrested North Korean spies in the 1960s and at least once in the 1980s. When the fishermen first came ashore in Yurihonjo last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in Parliament that the crew members could be spies.
Satoru Miyamoto, a professor of political science at Seigakuin University, said he doubted any of the North Koreans currently landing in Japan are engaged in espionage.
Spies, he said, “would come on a better ship.” He said the current crews were likely fishermen or farmers trying to supplement their incomes during their off-season. Some were relatively inexperienced, he said, and when they encountered wild ocean currents in aging wooden boats, “some of them ran into trouble.”
According to propaganda videos released by North Korea, Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, has heavily promoted commercial fishing. In one video shown on Japanese broadcaster Nihon TV, the regime said it wanted to double the country’s catch this year.
Under United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea, the country cannot sell seafood abroad. Jiro Ishimaru, a journalist with Asia Press who covers North Korea, said many fishermen are trying to sell their catches domestically, and take big risks to fish for squid in a particularly treacherous area of the Sea of Japan known as the Yamato Rise. “It is dangerous, but they can quickly earn money,” said Mr. Ishimaru.
Along the eastern coast of North Korea, “there are fishing villages known as ‘widows’ villages,’” he said. “Many people don’t return.”
Indeed, the eight men whose boat washed ashore in Oga will never make it home. According to Hiromi Wakai, a spokeswoman in Akita for the Coast Guard, their bodies, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, were badly decomposed by the time their boat reached the shore. In autopsies, a medical examiner concluded that two of them died by drowning, but could not determine a cause of death for the other six.
Over the weekend, the city of Oga cremated the bodies. The Coast Guard is keeping fingernails and toenails for DNA identification in case family members come forward. In past cases, the Japanese Red Cross has helped to return remains to North Korea.
For now, the ashes of the eight are stored in unmarked white boxes that sit on a table at the back of the main hall in Tousenji, a Zen temple in Oga.
Ryosen Kojima, 62, Tousenji’s priest, said the temple would keep the ashes indefinitely. If they are not claimed, they will eventually be buried in a grave for unknown souls in the temple’s back garden.
“They are humans just like us,” said Mr. Kojima, who said the temple usually takes in two or three sets of anonymous remains of North Korean fishermen a year. “But they have no one to look after their ashes.”
“Since they were born into this world,” he said, “they must have parents and families. I feel so sorry for them.”