Shizuo Kakutani sees no great mystery in the things that wash ashore in Monzen, his quiet fishing village on the Sea of Japan — the fishing boats ravaged by fierce winter storms, the Chinese garbage carried to land by the strong winds, the occasional body that drifts in from Yaseno, the nearby cliffs notorious for suicides.
The ghost ships, however, are harder to explain.
On an early morning in November, the 71-year-old retired fisherman received a call from his colleagues at the town's civilian coast guard. A black mass bobbling in the water — most likely a boat — had been spotted hooked to a distant buoy.
"When I saw the boat, I immediately knew that it was from North Korea," Kakutani said. He had seen similar vessels before — no more than 30 feet long, made of wood, its flat-bottomed hull covered in black tar.
"Then, as we were pulling the boat to this port, we noticed a pair of legs sticking out from underneath, bobbing up and down with the waves," Kakutani said. Later that day, they discovered two more boats and a grisly cargo of 10 bodies, all badly decomposed.
In small towns along Japan's sleepy west coast, dozens of North Korean boats drift ashore each year — and while most arrive empty or reduced to kindling, some float eerily out of the haze with a crew of bodies, adding to the mystery of a country that cloaks itself in secrecy.
A flotilla of the ghost boats — at least 14 of them, carrying more than 30 decomposing corpses — has washed ashore since late last year along a 1,000-mile stretch of the west coast, leaving Japanese investigators puzzled. Who were these people? What happened to them?
The boats bore unmistakable signs of North Korean origin. Their hulls were emblazoned with painted numbers and Korean script; one was marked "State Security Department," and another "Korean People's Army." A tattered North Korean flag flew from one of the boats, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported. A backpack, found on another, had a pin bearing the portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.
All of those on board appeared to be male, though some were so badly decomposed investigators couldn't be certain. All wore civilian clothing. Autopsies found that they had been dead for about two months, but the cause of death was elusive.
Perhaps they were defectors, analysts surmised — although scores of have attempted to flee the country in recent years, few have dared to cross the freezing, storm-tossed sea. Most travel overland into northeastern China.
Then, a new theory surfaced.