This Incredible Story Raises the Question of an Alien Visit to Japan in 1803

This Incredible Story Raises the Question of an Alien Visit to Japan in 1803

Wyatt Redd - March 23, 2018

In the early hours of February 22, 1803, a small group of fishermen was trying their luck in the waters off the coast of Eastern Japan. But as their boat moved through the waves, they spotted an object drifting towards them through the mist. Curious, the fisherman edged closer. The mysterious object was a boat, but it was unlike any boat they had ever seen. It was completely round, more like a capsule than a boat. And the top was ringed with a series of fine crystal windows. The curiosity of the fishermen was peaked, and they decided to tow the boat behind them to shore.

Once on land, the entire village came out to get a look at the fisherman’s mysterious find. Upon closer examination, it was clear that the boat was made up of a strange, reddish-colored wood. The lower part of the ship was covered in metal plates to protect against rocks. The windows were covered with some sort of sticky resin or film, although it was still possible to see inside the ship. The walls were covered with some sort of mysterious writing that no one could understand. But even more surprising, there was also a girl inside.

This Incredible Story Raises the Question of an Alien Visit to Japan in 1803
The Utsuro-Bune. Wikimedia Commons.

The girl was as alien as her ship. She had pale, pink skin and was less than five feet tall. Her hair was long and red, with white streaks running through it. Her long, flowing clothes were made up of an unfamiliar fabric, but all agreed that they were very beautiful. It was clear that the mysterious girl had been living in the ship for some time. There was a bed inside, along with some basic supplies, like a small bottle that the villagers thought contained water, along with a bit of dough and meat.

The only other possession the girl carried was a box made of a strange, pale material, which she refused to let go of. Nor would she let anyone else touch it. The girl could speak, but no one could understand her, or even recognize her language. And the girl couldn’t understand anything they said to her. So, it was impossible to ask her where she had come from or what was in the box. With no better ideas, the girl was taken back to the village while the community argued about where she had come from and what to do with her.

This Incredible Story Raises the Question of an Alien Visit to Japan in 1803
A Japanese fishing village in 1917. Wikimedia Commons.

It was obvious that the girl wasn’t from Japan. But no one could decide where she might actually be from. In the end, it was decided that she was probably a princess, due to the fine quality of her clothes. And the village assumed that she had been exiled, probably because of an extra-marital affair. Her lover had likely been beheaded, and his head had been placed in the box, which is why she refused to let go of it. Deciding that fate demanded she be set adrift, the villagers took her back to her hollow ship and pushed it into the waves, where it drifted out of history and into legend. But who was the woman in the mysterious hollow ship?

This Incredible Story Raises the Question of an Alien Visit to Japan in 1803
Kyokutei Bakin. Wikimedia Commons.

The story of the hollow ship, or the Utsuro-Bune in Japanese, quickly spread around the country. And it was eventually written down in three separate accounts that survive to this day. Even at the time, people around the country wondered where the ship had come from. But in 1844, one man thought he had found the answer. Kyokutei Bakin, a well-respected Japanese writer, wrote about a trip to Russia he had recently taken. And he reported that many of the things he saw there were similar to the story of the hollow ship.

For instance, many of the women in Russia had red hair, just as the woman in the hollow ship did. And many of the women in Eastern Russia used powder to color their hair white, which might explain why the woman in the hollow ship had white streaks in her hair. He also mentioned that the mysterious symbols that were supposed to have been on the inside of the ship were similar to symbols he had seen on the side of British whaling ships in Russia. But he also suggested that the symbols might not have actually existed.

To Bakin, the best explanation was that the ship had come from Russia, and the woman inside was a Russian woman who had been exiled for some reason. And he believed that some of the more fantastic details might have been exaggerated, or that popular illustrations of the ship didn’t match the eyewitness accounts. But not everyone accepted Bakin’s explanation, even at the time. And as time went on, other people began to suggest their own explanations for the enduring mystery of the hollow ship. And some were certainly a bit more believable than others.

In the mid 20th-century, Japanese historian Yanagida Kunio began his own study of the hollow ship legend. And he decided that the ship was probably from Japan if it existed at all. He pointed out that round ships were fairly common in Japan, although obviously not with some of the more exotic details of the Utsuro-Bune. But there have also been legends for centuries in Japan of people finding mysterious ships, usually with someone inside. According to Kunio, the Utsuro-Bune story probably reflected these earlier stories, with the extra details about metal plates and glass windows added to make it more believable that the ship could survive out in the ocean.

This Incredible Story Raises the Question of an Alien Visit to Japan in 1803
Russian women in traditional clothing. Wikimedia Commons.

For instance, there’s a story dating back all the way to the 7th century that has a lot of similarities to the Utsoru Bune. In this story, a fisherman finds a Chinese princess adrift at sea inside a hollow ship. The girl was raised in Japan and eventually married a Japanese prince to become the mythical founder of an imperial dynasty. In fact, she’s still venerated at a shrine in the country. But many people see the story of the Utsuro-Bune differently. To them, the explanation is much more other-worldly, even extra-terrestrial.

This Incredible Story Raises the Question of an Alien Visit to Japan in 1803
An Egyptian hieroglyph that some people think depicts a UFO. Wikimedia Commons.

The idea that aliens have contacted our distant ancestors isn’t a new one. You’ve no doubt heard theories that the Pyramids in Egypt were built by extra-terrestrials, but some people have seen evidence that aliens were spotted everywhere from ancient India to South America. And people who are inclined to believe that theory often see the story of the Utsuro-Bune as another possible alien encounter. And there are some obvious reasons for that. The ship itself is described as other-worldly. It was supposed to be covered in strange symbols and was built from strange materials. And of course, there is the mysterious woman who emerged from it.

The visitor’s features were obviously not common in Japan. But while many have suggested that she was from another place on Earth, people who believe that the ship was a UFO often think that she might have been an alien. A possible clue to that theory could be the strange materials her clothes were supposed to be made from, which no one had apparently seen before. And the mysterious box she carried with her is often seen as a possible piece of alien technology, which would explain why she was reluctant to let people touch it.

But that’s where the connection between the Utsuro-Bune and alien visitors seems to stop. And there are a lot more reasons to think that the ship was probably from this planet. None of the stories from the time make it seem like the woman in the ship didn’t look human. And while that doesn’t rule out the possibility that she was an alien, it’s much more likely that she was from somewhere like Russia than space. And of course, few of the other details are completely unexplainable by more conventional theories.

For instance, the strange symbols on the ship could easily have been a language like Russian or English. Rural fisherman in 19th-century Japan would have been unlikely to recognize either alphabet. And the fact that the ship had food inside that the villagers could recognize makes it seem unlikely that it belonged to an alien, who would probably have no need of bread and meat. The ship itself didn’t show any signs of advanced technology. According to the stories, it didn’t fly or make any strange movements. Instead, it simply drifted through the water. And of course, that’s assuming that the stories are describing something that actually happened.

This Incredible Story Raises the Question of an Alien Visit to Japan in 1803
A contemporary Japanese depiction of foreigners. Wikimedia Commons.

Japan has a long history of rich folklore. And tales of mysterious people emerging from unlikely things are common. It’s hard to say how true the story of the Utsuro-Bune is, but in any case, the answer to the mystery probably isn’t aliens. It’s more likely to be an adaptation of classic stories to a time when Japan was beginning to grapple with the presence of foreigners in a traditionally closed society. While it would be another 50 years before Japan was really opened to the West, foreigners had been visiting Japan for centuries as missionaries and traders. And the story of the Utsuro-Bune was probably a subconscious reaction to the increasing presence of this, more mundane sort of alien.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Did a close encounter of the Third Kind occur on a Japanese beach in 1803?”. Kazuo Tanaka, Skeptical Enquirer. July 2000.

“Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan: Exploding the Myth of National Seclusion”. Arano Yasunori, Nippon. January 2013.

“The Yanagita Kunio guide to the Japanese folktale”. Kunio Yanagita, Fanny Hagin Mayer, Nihon Hōsō Kyōkai, Indiana University Press. 1986.