Utsuro-Bune; The Legend of An Extraterrestrial Arrival By Sea
An alleged visit by an extraterrestrial to the 19th-century coast of Japan.
Utsuro-bune is Japanese for “hollow boat.” The term is used to refer to one of the strangest of legends, this one involving a being from another planet. For some, it’s a mix of multiple ancient myths. Others consider it one of the oldest records of human contact with extraterrestrials. A unique tale, it’s an account of a strange and beautiful woman’s arrival on the coast of Hitachi province, in Japan’s east, at the beginning of the 19th century.
The Utsuro-bune legend was recorded in three different texts, all written within a few years of the event. The first is Toen shōsetsu (The Stories of the Garden of Rabbits), an 1825 manuscript which provides an impressively detailed description of the lady’s visit. A second, Hyōryū kishū (Diaries and stories of castaways), was written in 1835. Finally, Ume-no-chiri, (Peach Powder) was written in 1844. All three tales relate the same event, and with only minimal variations in their descriptions, the place names and the strange, man-made ship in which a woman arrived, it’s said, from another planet.
According to all three texts, on February 22, 1803, a group of fishermen from the Hitachi region sighted a boat of some 3.3 meters high by 5.4 meters wide and found floating near the shore. The small boat was sort of a hollow capsule in the shape of an incense burner (Kōhako) or a rice pit. Made of wood, it was covered on the bottom with copper plates that protected the ship from the steep rocks along the coast. It also had glass windows held in place by wooden strips fixed with resin.
The fishermen decided to take the ship ashore to investigate. Inside, written on the walls, they found inscriptions written in an unknown language. There was also water, food, bedding, and carpets. Detailed descriptions in the texts indicated how many liters of water were found (3.6) and the foods, which included meat and some sort of bread. The fishermen also found a woman inside the boat.
The young woman is described as beautiful and strange: with red eyebrows, about 18 or 20 years old, at a height of 1.5 meters, with pale skin and red hair adorned with white extensions that appeared to be made of skin or finely cut fabric. The girl wore long garments made of an unknown fabric. And in her hands, she held a light-colored box of about 23 centimeters in length. The fishermen, impressed, tried to communicate with her, but the girl spoke a language that was not Japanese and behaved in a very strange way. She refused to let anyone touch the small box and guarded it jealously.
Settlers from around the region made all sorts of assumptions about the woman’s origin. Some suspected that she was the queen of a distant country, and accused of adultery and exiled. Some claimed that the little box might even contain the head of her lover. Frightened by the strangeness of the situation and unable to communicate with her, the fishermen decided to put her back into the ship and return it to the sea.
The Utsuro-bune story has interested historians, anthropologists, ethnologists and UFO-logists alike. For some, the story of the strange woman from the sea is a modernization of Japanese folklore and myth. They’ve found other ancient narratives that could be the origin of this questionable tale. Others have claimed that the legend of the young woman is one of the earliest records of contact with beings from another planet. They compare the strange symbols found on the walls of the ship with those at other sites of supposed contact with extraterrestrials, and the shape of the hollow ship with flying saucers. Some historians maintain that the strange visitor came from Russia based on her physical features.
Whatever explanation is accepted, the legend of Utsuro-bune confronts us with wonderfully indecipherable, profoundly human questions. It’s no coincidence that the visitor was a young and beautiful woman, or that the fishermen made all kinds of judgments of her past. The fact that they returned the vessel to the sea when they couldn’t understand it, in that time (the Edo period) when Japan was cut off from the outside world, is not meaningless either. Finally, the strange legend throws open a wide spectrum of questions and mysteries with the very eccentricity that characterizes Japanese poetry. One of these might be just what was inside that little box so jealously guarded by the visitor?
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