Samurai crabs – Can people come return from death?

There are parts of life that we can’t explain – events that are beyond our comprehension. They question our understanding of the world. They are the fodder that makes us wonder if there is something beyond human at work. They are coincidences that boggle the mind. The story I want to tell you is one of these.

The land of the cherry blossoms is where we start our story. It was April the 24th, 1185. The day would be long, and thousands would be slaughtered just beyond those cherry blossoms. 

Japan was used to war. Most cultures were, for that matter. As an island nation, civil war was the flavour of conflict the country often consumed. Traditionally, Japan had been controlled by an Emperor. Sitting on that throne was a six-year-old boy – Emperor Antoku. He was the head of the Taira clan, which had ruled Japan for the last twenty-five years.

Against the Taira clan and their emperor were the Minamoto clan. They were the military upstarts led by shogun Minamoto Yoritomo, the army’s commander-in-chief. 

There can only be one ruler – The shogun or the emperor. The battle that began on this April morning would decide. The battlefield was the oceans and the cavalry their ships. The Minamoto had the numbers, but numbers don’t always win battles if we’ve learned anything from history. The Taira were expert navigators and had the upper hand at sea. 

The battle of Dan-no-Ura bay

He stood on the soaked deck, bow in hand. The men below deck rowed as water splashed up and mixed with the blood of bodies. The ship creaked as it came in range. Men screamed to be heard over the maelstrom of combat. Bracing himself, he pulled an arrow from his quiver and fired it off at the Minamoto ship. It was lost against the dozens of arrows joining it, raining down on the other ship’s deck with a hollow thud. As he ducked behind the rigging, he lost his grip. He slid across the deck and crashed into a corner beside a bundle of rigging. He finally noticed the arrow in his neck. His eyes became heavy as he looked up to the sky. It was sunny, and the sky was clear. The cherry blossoms filled the mountainside. A second arrow limped by, piercing the flesh of his thigh, sinews tearing as he helplessly tugged at it. He bled out on the deck and joined the other corpses gliding over the splintered deck. He was one of the thousands dead before evening.

As each clan maneuvered, they fired volley after volley of arrows, thinning the decks of men with every encounter. It wasn’t only experience but also the tides on the Taira clan’s side. They used this to their advantage, allowing them to strike at a distance and avoid close hand combat. As long as the battle was confined to distance, the extra strength of the Minamoto clan counted for nothing. Arrows flew by, and the ships turned to porcupines as they found their mark. 

Under pain of rowing with arrows protruding from their neck, chest, arms and eyes, the Taira were doing it. This was a fight of attrition. The Minamoto lost men faster as the Taira used the favourable tides to surround their ships. Decks began grinding closer, and arrows gave way to metal as men jumped between ships in a rush of combat. Ship after ship accumulated as the ocean battle became land, with the ships acting as barges. With every locking of ships, the Taira soon realised their fortunes were changing as the battle turned to survival. 

Emperor Antoku watched his Taira fleet sink. Despair gave way to fear as the Minamoto came for him. The Taira decks bled red as soldiers began impaling themselves with their own weapons. Shame compelled the blade through their abdomen. In a loving embrace, Antokus’s grandma picked him up and jumped overboard. They drowned along with his fleet. 

The souls of samurai

Are the Taira really dead? Was their candle snuffed out on that day? For some, the answer is no. You see, something peculiar happened after the battle. The Taira soldiers might have sunk to the bottom of the water, but that wasn’t their final resting place. As life moved on, the fishermen of Dan-no-Ura bay began spreading fantastical tales of samurai crabs. They talked of crabs that resembled the perished Taira samurai. In time, it wasn’t just the fishermen. It was everyone. There really were samurai crabs. Their shells were identical to the Taira. Against all logic, their spirits live on. 

Behind the crabs is a mystery. But for this mystery, we don’t need Sherlock. It’s Darwin we’re after. This isn’t a trick or exaggeration. The crab’s backs really were furnished by portraits of samurai. With every generation, the resemblance became even more uncanny. 

The truth is isn’t stranger than fiction

What I failed to mention was that the Japanese fishermen would throw some of the crabs back into the water. The crabs thrown back happened to be the ones brandishing a samurai pattern. With the next generation of crabs, the patterns only became more intricate. And the unlucky crabs without these detailings found themselves on the menu. In time, divine intervention was the only possible explanation. How else could these intricate carvings be explained? What they didn’t see was the hundreds of years it took to get there. 

At first, I was disappointed. It was fascinating to think that some unexplained force was responsible. But would that really be more fantastic than mother natures hand? She crafted intricate samurai patterns from nothing other than fishermen throwing back crabs. Understanding how she did it doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring. It only makes us appreciate it even more.

Comprehending the remarkable things in life doesn’t detract from their meaning and beauty. Every puzzle of life we handball to the divine stays unsolved, and with it all the knowledge that might just transform our understanding of the world. 

Here’s a quote from a man who decided that humans could open one of nature’s many puzzles 

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

Charles Darwin
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