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blog - Andrea Jivan

Facing Shadow: Jungian Thought and the Japanese Myth of Umibōzu

Several weeks back while perusing a favorite internet site as I sipped my morning brew I happened upon an allegory for the work day ahead, a day of therapy sessions likely to be filled with emotional monsters of all kinds.  The tale was of the Umibōzu, the Japanese Sea Monk, figured in an Edo period woodblock print with a short caption depicting the moment when a fisherman is confronted by the sea monster’s giant black dome, ogling eyes, and interrogating voice:

“This ukiyo-e woodblock print, by the late Edo period artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), illustrates a story involving the “Sea Monk” or Umibōzu, a spirit in Japanese folklore. The ocean dwelling spirit — so called because of his smooth monk-like round head — is said to capsize the ship of anyone who dares speak to it. The specific tale illustrated in Kuniyoshi’s woodblock tells of a sailor Kawanaya Tokuzo who, despite it being considered unlucky in the world of seafaring, decides to go to sea on the last day of the year. A terrible storm breaks out, and the giant figure of the Umibōzu appears. Against the roar of the waves the apparition asks, “Name the most horrible thing you know!” Tokuzo yells in reply, “My profession is the most horrible thing I know!” The answer apparently satisfies the monster as he then disappears along with the storm.” (via Public Domain Review)

I was struck because the menacing mythological monster in the print appears to be a giant shadow; I was struck more by the moment the fisherman dispels the monster’s power by declaring his profession to the be ‘the worst thing I know.’ The process of therapy creates a confrontation with self, and more specifically what C. G. Jung calls shadow, the hidden contents between ego and unconscious wherein one recognizes external terrors as originating within and created through projection. A confrontation with the feelings that one is or has done the most horrible thing they know may be one of the most valuable, courageous, and uncomfortable stations during the work.

In a sense, the tale contains many components representative of basic themes in Jungian psychology. The oceanic unconscious, a nightmarish figure that penetrates surface reality with reality in potentia, and in doing so creates a great storm from apparent calm. While it is considered inauspicious by the average villager to venture out to sea on the last day of the season, being so determined to work, the fisherman has an experience of mastering the monster’s power. How does he do this? By accounting for his own menacing behavior in connection with the sea – the unconscious, and his shadow.

Like the Umibōzu rising from the depths, shadow contents from the unconscious may penetrate our surface reality.

“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.” – C.G. Jung, The Shadow, Aion, CW. 

Jung described the persistence of the shadow as it arises in projections, and the difficult work of acknowledging, then taking ownership of shadow projections; one’s own monsters. I remained astonished in my morning contemplations, astonished by the reserves of courage it takes to continue this kind of inner work, even if one is seemingly compelled not by a conscious desire, but because they’ve found themselves dangerously lost in the storm of their trials. What do these trails want?

In this case, the apparitional monk instigates a terrifying reckoning between a wise fisherman and his accountability to his vocation and his ambition, to his means of survival. The myth illustrates Jung’s theories connecting the ego to the shadow, and the potentially peace-inducing effects of withdrawing our projections, the monstrous ‘others’ who reside within ourselves.

When properly examined, shadow contents may become less frightening. "Two men frightened by a ghost fall over one another and then laugh hysterically when they realize they are fleeing a kimono drying in the wind." (via art.thewalters.org)

In the end of the tale, the fisherman has withdrawn his projections, and a result, the Umibōzu that arose from the unconscious and aimed at destroying him, has retreated. Jung emphasized repeatedly the near impossibility of withdrawing all of one’s projections, while equally he emphasized the capacity for living in a more integrated and numinous experience of self-mastery as a result. Perhaps the characterization of unconscious monster as monk lends further contemplation to this idea.

As I continued to prepare for the morning of work, I couldn’t help but wish that similar to all the folks I’d be sitting with that day, people willing to attempt standing account with their monsters, that our leaders were required to have a bit of this same courage, rather than make in the world the war against their Umibōzu. As conscientious workers and citizens, braving the admonishments of the village, facing our own shadows then withdrawing our projections can catalyze vital strides toward righting relationships and restoring peace to community.


~ Andrea Jivan, L.M.T., M.A.
Depth Psychotherapist Intern
Social Media Manager
Jung Society of Utah


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