5 Strange Details Of Japan's 19th-Century UFO

They didn't have a word for it, but we'd call it a flying saucer.
5 Strange Details Of Japan's 19th-Century UFO

UFOs make frequent appearances in Japanese culture. Take 2009, when Miyuki Hatoyama, the wife of the then Prime Minister-in-waiting Yukio Hatoyama, claimed that she was abducted by aliens and taken to Venus on a triangular spaceship. Other notable stories of extraterrestrials visiting Japan include a bonkers 1980s anime about a guy stealing an alien's bra (the title of which was later immortalized in Star Trek) as well as the following close encounter that's over 200 years old …

Japan's First UFO Was Technically A USO

On February 22, 1803, a strange object was spotted in the waters off the coast of what's today Ibaraki Prefecture, eastern Japan. Pulling it ashore, the local villagers struggled to describe the thing's shape. The closest they got was comparing it to something like a Japanese incense burner or maybe two shallow bowls put together. Fortunately, here in the 21st century, we have so many more words. We have so many words that we now have names for BS stuff that doesn't exist, like "sigma male." The point is, we can accurately describe how the mysterious object looked like: it looked like a flying saucer.

Maybe not exactly like the ones from '50s and '60s movies but pretty close to it. Measuring 3.30m (~11 feet) in height and 5.4m (~18 feet) in width, the vessel was oval/almond-shaped, with a bottom half that was covered in brass plates. Meanwhile, the top half apparently looked like lacquered wood, which is exactly how a 19th-century fisherman would describe transparent aluminum or some other sci-fi material.

An ink drawing of the Utsuro-bune by Nagahashi Matajirou

Nagahashi Matajirou

They also had no word for tractor beam, but we know the vessel had one. 

The upper part also contained windows, and although glass was already well known in Japan back then, accounts are not sure whether the windows were made from glass or crystal or something else entirely. They did have bars on them, though, and normally I'd scold the fishermen for not immediately pushing that thing back into the ocean, but sci-fi horror still hadn't been invented then. So how were they supposed to know this was clearly a crash-landed UFO meant to carry an unholy/razor-tentacled/throat-seeking alien science experiment straight into the Sun?

Actually, the brass reinforcements on the bottom seem to suggest that the vessel was specifically meant for sea voyages, meaning that this wasn't so much an Unidentified Flying Object, as it was an Unidentified Submarine Object. Or USO for short. Which, incidentally, means "lie" in Japanese. This is kinda fitting cause Japan ended up calling this thing "Utsuro-bune," meaning "hollow ship," even though it was very much not empty.

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"I Can Work With That."—Captain Kirk

Inside the vessel, the local fishermen found bedsheets, water, cake, meat, and walls covered in "mysterious" symbols. I put quotation marks around "mysterious" cause the markings were obviously the ship's manifesto, and it was clearly carrying …

… A Pink Floyd album, a slipper tree, a Frisbee, the Holy Hand Grenade, and … oh crap, Bill Cipher from Gravity Falls? RUN, FOOLS!

Oh yeah, they also found a person inside. The hollow ship's passenger was a beautiful woman of average height with pinkish skin and fiery-red hair with either white extensions or white dye-streaks. She was said to have been dressed in strange though exquisite clothing, and, yup, this is already starting to sound like the beginning of erotic Star Trek fanfic. I'm sorry. I have no idea why I felt the need to say "erotic," as if there was any other kind. Anyway, the only reason why this story doesn't end with the (obviously) alien princess asking a young, handsome fisherman to teach her more about this thing we humans call "love" or "reverse electro-cowgirl," was because no one could communicate with the woman.

Utsuro-bune. Manjudō, the strange boat drifted ashore on fief of Lord Ogasawara.

Iwase Bunko Library

Based on this drawing, she might have been a sexy mermaid. 

She spoke a strange language that no one could understand, and weirder still, she kept carrying a rectangular box with her that nobody was allowed to touch or look inside. And because none of the locals were the past incarnations of Brad Pitt's character from Se7en, everyone stopped trying to learn who this woman is and just started taking wild guesses as to her identity. You heard the expression "when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebra"? It's like Occam's Razor, only much more conducive to this next joke:

The people who came across the hollow ship heard hoof beats, but instead of zebras, they thought of a whole premise for a daytime soap opera, with one elder coming to this logical conclusion about the woman: "She is clearly a princess from a foreign country who married a man she didn't love, had an affair, and was sent out into the sea in this strange craft as punishment. That box she carries? It has her lover's head inside it. Duh."

se7en box

New Line Cinema

We don't know what it is about boxes that make everyone think, "Yeah, definitely a head." 

And so, having totally cracked the case, the villagers decided to … pack up the redheaded maybe alien, maybe foreign princess onto the boat and pushed her out into the sea again. Hey, if that's the punishment some foreign government sentenced her to, who were they to argue with their decision? Not total weirdos? And just like that, the Utsuro-bune was gone. But its legend lived on.

Did This Really Happen? "Yup," Said An Actual Ninja

The 1803 Utsuro-bune incident was actually recorded by a bunch of contemporary sources, being described, for example, in Toen Shosetsu (~" Toen Stories"), an 1825 collection of fantastic rumors edited by a popular fiction writer. So … the 19th-century version of a tabloid, basically. Subsequent sources from the 1830s and 1840s seem to be largely based on Toen Shosetsu and treat it as fact, probably because they too weren't exactly scientific publications. But they each contain a few details that the others do not while agreeing on the broader facts of the case, which led some researchers to conclude that they were all the result of independent investigations into the not-so-hollow ship.

The problem is that what they agreed on is mega suspect. The sources claim that the Utsuro-bune washed up around the "Harato-no-hama" or "Harayadori" area of the Hitachi province. Cool beans. However, no such places existed anywhere in Japan then. So … not so cool beans; actually, super-hot beans. And this story doesn't come from a time when mapmakers drew giant blanks/dragons/the villages their totes real girlfriends were from when it came to areas farther than 20 miles from where they lived. This happened like one year before the invention of the steam locomotive. If "Harayadori" was a real place, someone would have written it down somewhere. But not even a dirty limerick mentioning such a place exists when it lends itself to so many great setups: "There once was a man from Harayadori, whose favorite type of hole was the glory …" Gold. Solid gold.

An ink drawing of the Utsuro-bune by Kyokutei Bakin (1825).

Kyokutei Bakin

He invaded a hole
In a gray USO
Now his dick's in a box. End of story

However, there is ONE document that confirms the arrival of a USO in Hitachi, only this one claims it happened in Hitachihara Sharihama, which does actually feature on real maps. The source in question is the so-called Banke Document, named after the Ban family of ninjas. Now, they usually operated out of Aichi but, don't panic; I'm not going to make you open another tab and learn geography or, God forbid, use math. Suffice to say, Aichi and Hitachi weren't close.

So, clearly, whatever ninja business the Ban ninjas had in Hitachi, it had to have been ninja official, meaning they wouldn't be sitting around, making up stuff to send to their boss while uncontrollably giggling. If a bunch of ninjas said they saw a UFO boat, then that is what happened, and that is what should happen in a Netflix or HBO Max action sci-fi show loosely based on the Utsuro-bune story. I say "loosely" because if I don't see a shuriken vs. alien blaster duel set in 19th century Japan, I am going to … wait. Do cops read these articles? Just in case: I'm NOT going to fling dirty diapers at a bunch of TV execs. Phew. Dodged a bullet there.

All Right, But Even If The Utsuro-Bune Was Real … Was It Extraterrestrial?

Probably not. There are just too many facts working against the alien theory. You have to understand that magical people floating in on or inside weird things is an entire genre of Japanese folklore. The popular folk hero and demon slayer Momotaro, for example, was found by an elderly couple while floating down a river inside a giant peach. Princess Kaguya from The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (and also the Moon, as it later turned out) was found inside a bamboo stalk. And then there's the story of Princess Wake.

According to the legend, in the 7th century, a fisherman found a hollow ship like the one from 1803 with a young girl inside. Fortunately, this one apparently spoke Japanese and was able to explain that she was the daughter of a Chinese emperor escaping her evil stepmother. And she actually had a lot of imperial cash stashed away in her overseas account, and if you could just lend her some money to help get it all out, she'll gladly share her fortune with you. That's how the story should have ended, but instead, the young fisherman raised the little girl and ended up marrying her off to a prince. Princess Wake is also credited with bringing over the first silkworms to Japan and introducing the craft of silk-making to the country.

So it's not like someone in early 19th-century Japan had to use a lot of imagination to come up with the Utsuro-bune story. Honestly, it kind of sounds like they barely changed any details from the Princess Wake legend, other than adding a downer ending where the villagers indirectly murder the heroine. Damn, turns out gritty reboots are over 200 years old.

Also, some researchers say that the 1803 alien princess's vaguely European appearance proves that the entire story is an allegory about Japanese people's anxieties over contact with the outside world, which was forbidden in Japan at the time under the country's strict isolationist policy that lasted until 1850s. Still, though, there is that whole ninja report and another piece of research that seems to prove that the Utsuro-bune was real.

So The "Alien Princess" Was Russian?

The hollow ship woman being Russian would actually make a lot of sense. You rarely think about it, but Russia and Japan are actually neighbors because when they were handing out country sizes, Russia used a variety of fake mustaches to get in line like 4-5 times.

It's not exactly such a massive trip from there to the shores of Japan. Also, according to some Japanese writers who traveled to the easternmost parts of Russia, there were redheaded women there who put white streaks in their hair and dressed similarly to the Utsuro-bune princess.

Baba Yaga as depicted by Ivan Bilibin, 1900

Ivan Bilibin

Eastern Russia is home to many witches.

The only hole I find in this theory is that, as a Slav, I'm the first to admit that our languages sound ANGRY literally all the time. If the Utsuro-bune woman really was speaking Russian, she could have been telling everyone about how she loves making flower crowns for her puppies, and it would have sounded to Japanese ears like a declaration of war against the idea of happiness. Surely that would have made it into at least one official account, right?

As things are, no one can say for sure what the real story is. Could have been aliens, only, no, probably not. Could have been a Russian explorer. Could all be crap. Could still make for an awesome TV show. Please write to your streaming platform of choice and demand they greenlight Ninjas vs. The Battle Princess of Mars. Also, please let them know that I AM willing to rework that second part to The Electro-Cowgirls of Venus and pivot this entire idea into sci-fi erotica. Really stress that last part. Thanks in advance.

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Top image: Iwase Bunko Library


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