If you’re superstitious and currently living in Japan, you might want to start packing your bags. Over the past few weeks, carcasses of sea-serpent-like creatures were found washed up on the shores of Japan’s coastal area and spooking locals. For good reason.
According to Japanese lore, the appearance of oarfish is known to be a sign of impending doom. The species’ traditional Japanese name, ryugu no tsukai means “messenger from the palace of the dragon king." And the message is never good.
Many have associated the phenomenon of stranded oarfish to be a warning sign of earthquakes. In 2011, scientists reported that 20 oarfish carcasses were found on Japan’s beaches just months before an earthquake struck off northeast Japan, triggering a massive tsunami that claimed the lives of over 22,000 people and destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant. The disaster destroyed 138,000 buildings and cost the country $360 billion USD in economic damage.
This has happened outside Japan, too. In 2017, a day before a 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit the city of Luzon in the Philippines, two oarfish—one 12-feet and the other 14-feet-long—washed up on a beach on another island, 800 miles from where the earthquake was centered.
For all the coincidences, however, there hasn't been any scientific proof that could link oarfish to natural disasters.
“The link to reports of seismic activity goes back many, many years, but there is no scientific evidence of a connection so I don’t think people need to worry,” Hiroyuki Motomura, a professor of fish science at Kagoshima University told South China Morning Post.
While Motomura might be skeptical, for years other scientists have been studying animal behavior to see whether animals can be linked to seismic activity.
Martin Wikelski, a German scientist followed several animals on a farm in Italy from 2012 to 2014 to monitor their behavior during earthquakes. Although his study not yet been published, he hinted that the data showed animals moving in a consistent way in the hours before an earthquake. If his research does indeed prove a link, it has the potential to serve as an early warning system that could potentially save thousands of lives.
Japan citizens' fear of tsunami and earthquake are not unsubstantiated. In fact, the government has warned citizens that a major earthquake in Nankai Trough would happen in the next 30 years and there’s no way to predict when it will hit. Since the 3/11 tsunami and nuclear disaster, Japan has upgraded its tsunami warning system, but it's gone untested in a large earthquake.
This uncertainty is probably the reason why people's fear continues to heighten as more and more oarfish are washing up ashore, even though experts have assured them that it's not a bad omen. But after the disasters that the country has faced in the last few decades, no one can blame them for believing in anything to prepare for the worst.