When a UFO Came to Japan in 1803: Discover the Legend of Utsuro-bune

For the enthu­si­ast of uniden­ti­fied fly­ing objects, we live in inter­est­ing times indeed. Back in 2021, as we pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, the CIA declas­si­fied and pub­lished thou­sands of pages of UFO-relat­ed doc­u­ments. In just the past few weeks, three UFOs were shot down over North Amer­i­ca. In the span of time between those events, much else has also occurred to stim­u­late the imag­i­na­tion of those who’ve kept watch­ing the skies. Fas­ci­na­tion with UFOs may have strong cul­tur­al asso­ci­a­tions with twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca — and the sub­ject can now feel a bit passé for that rea­son — but it knows few­er cul­tur­al or tem­po­ral bound­aries than we may think: wit­ness, for exam­ple, the Japan­ese folk­tale of Utsuro-bune.

“In 1803, a round ves­sel drift­ed ashore on the Japan­ese coast and a beau­ti­ful woman emerged, wear­ing strange cloth­ing and car­ry­ing a box. She was unable to com­mu­ni­cate with the locals, and her craft was marked with mys­te­ri­ous writ­ing.” Such is the premise of the leg­end as retold at Nippon.com, which also offers an analy­sis by Gifu Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus Tana­ka Kazuo.

“Long before the Amer­i­can UFO sto­ries, the craft depict­ed in Edo-peri­od Japan­ese doc­u­ments for some rea­son looked like a fly­ing saucer,” he says. Nor have schol­ars traced Utsuro-bune (虚舟, which means “hol­low ship”) back to only one source: to date, Tana­ka “has found eleven doc­u­ments relat­ing to the Hitachi Utsuro-bune leg­end, of which the most inter­est­ing are thought to date from 1803, the same year that the craft was said to have come to shore.”

What exact­ly hap­pened in Hitachi, a small city on Japan’s east coast, in 1803? Why do near con­tem­po­rary depic­tions of the Utsuro-bune itself (espe­cial­ly in the 1835 Hyōryū kishū or “records of cast­aways,” as seen at the top of the post) so close­ly resem­ble mod­ern-day visions of fly­ing saucers? Giv­en that the inci­dent is held to have tak­en place dur­ing the coun­try’s 265-year-long sakoku peri­od of nation­al iso­la­tion, no for­eign­er is like­ly to have crossed over to Japan­ese shores with­out caus­ing a major inci­dent. Unable to com­mu­ni­cate with this mys­te­ri­ous woman, the fish­er­men of Hitachi are said sim­ply to have returned her — box and all — to the hol­low ship, which drift­ed back out to sea, nev­er to be seen again. It was her good luck, some ufol­o­gists might say, to have turned up on Earth a cen­tu­ry and a half before the open­ing of Area 51.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Japan­ese Fairy Tale Series: The Illus­trat­ed Books That Intro­duced West­ern Read­ers to Japan­ese Tales (1885–1922)

The First Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed to Japan­ese Folk­lore Mon­sters Is Now Open

The Ghosts and Mon­sters of Hoku­sai: See the Famed Wood­block Artist’s Fear­some & Amus­ing Visions of Strange Appari­tions

The CIA Has Declas­si­fied 2,780 Pages of UFO-Relat­ed Doc­u­ments, and They’re Now Free to Down­load

What Do Aliens Look Like? Oxford Astro­bi­ol­o­gists Draw a Pic­ture, Based on Dar­win­ian The­o­ries of Evo­lu­tion

The Appeal of UFO Nar­ra­tives: Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ist Paul Beban Vis­its Pret­ty Much Pop #14

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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