Unidentified Floating Object: Edo Images of Utsuro-bune

Sometime in the early months of 1803, an alien ship came ashore on the coast of Japan. Fishermen thought it was one of their own and rowed out to tow this object bobbing in the waves. It was not. The vessel looked like a cauldron, rice pot, or pod — its bottom was forged from some kind of heavy metal; the top seemed to be rosewood, lacquered and inset with latticed glass. On the beach, villagers marveled at the advanced engineering, and peering through the opaque windows, they noticed something writhing. Just then, a panel flung open on the hull and out stepped a being that looked almost human. . . Or so the various sources tell us, with varying levels of contradiction.

This utsuro-bune (hollow or vacant ship) appears in at least twelve literary sources from the late Edo period. The most notable, perhaps, is Toen shōsetsu (1825) by Bakin Takizawa (Kyokutei) — a fourteen-volume collection of gossip and gathered tales. We find a series of perplexing details in the eleventh volume of this work, during an account titled Utsuro-bune no Banjyo (A Foreign Woman in a Hollow Vessel). The alien ship, measuring about five meters in diameter, was discovered on a beach in the Hitachi Province. Its adolescent inhabitant was incomparably beautiful. Her red hair had white highlights; some speculated it was made of fur. She wore a dress crafted from a strange material, which the local women rather liked, for it could be kept tight on the top and loose near her ankles. She grasped a wooden box firmly and refused to let it go. From evidence gathered in the vessel, her species seemed to drink water and subsist on mince and cake. She spoke no Japanese.

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Illustration of the utsuro-bune from Bakin Kyokutei's Toen shōsetsu (1825) — Source.

On the beach, they fantasized that she was a foreign princess fleeing an unhappy marriage. This would explain the box — for some believed it contained a dead lover’s severed head — and the alien writing system inscribed on the vessel, which made them assume she was “a British, Bengali, or American princess”. (The reproductions of these symbols, such as in the rightward column of the image above, make us wonder otherwise.) In a cruel and slightly comic resolution, the villagers decide to send the alien back to where it came from. Not out of fear or hatred, but frugality. In Shoichi Kamon’s translation:

Indexed under…
If information about this incident is relayed to the lord of the territory, we may be ordered to inspect this woman and the boat, which would be a costly endeavor. Since there is a precedent that this kind of boat should be cast back out to sea, we had better put her inside the boat and send it away. From a humanitarian viewpoint, this treatment is too cruel for her. However, this treatment would be her destiny.

The account in Toen shōsetsu ends with a curious bit of editorializing. The tale is signed by Kinrei, thought to be a pseudonym of Okitsugu Takizawa, but concludes with a postscript by his father, Bakin. He recalls reading an account of Japanese travelers in Russia, who witnessed women using white hair powder for formal dress. He thus relays that “she may have been a woman who lived in a Russian dependency. More detailed study on this is required.”

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Illustration of the utsuro-bune from Matajiro Nagahashi's 1825 Umeno chiri (1845) — Source.

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Illustration of the utsuro-bune from Komai Norimura's Ōshuku zakki (Ōshuku notes), thought to be a draft of the Toen shōsetsu image featured above (1825) — Source.

Was a Russian, American, or Bengali woman really cast back into the sea two hundred years ago? Or is this simply a tall tale? Were it not for a resemblance between utsuro-bune and the UFOs nicknamed “flying saucers” in the mid-twentieth century, these images might have taken their place firmly alongside the other Edo ghosts and monsters. Yet ufologists are hesitant to let the supposed facts decay into fiction or castaway narratives. In The Mystery of Utsuro-Bune (2019), for instance, Shoichi Kamon believes it is “not unreasonable” to think that this event actually happened, and hopes that the story “may possibly be a key to solving the mystery of modern UFOs”.

For those seeking an earthy explanation, we might look to the period in which the stories appeared. In his down-to-business analysis of the incident, “Did a Close Encounter of the Third Kind Occur on a Japanese Beach in 1803” (2000), Kazuo Tanaka discusses utsuro-fune: a genre of folktale that feigns to remember the Ur-scene of Japanese immigration — when people arrived to the archipelago in dugouts and small seafaring vessels — in order to boost the political legitimacy of a family’s rule. “The typical story of the folklore is that an ancestor of a family was a foreign noblewoman who crossed the sea by boat”. Folklorist Kunio Yanagita, who extensively studied utsuro-fune myths, believed they are governed by a law — legend becomes history. These stories were embellished over time, and the sea-crossing vessels morphed into the ornate watercrafts through cultural amnesia.

Couple this genre with the Edo period’s isolationism from international exchange — remembering that foreign ships entered Japanese waters with increasing frequency at the turn of the nineteenth century — and perhaps we end up with something like the utsuro-bune tales, in which the anxiety and excitement of an ethnic other appropriate the literary form historically used to shore up national identity. In a variant of the story, illustrated below, an empty ship washes up on the beach, its surface and interior almost entirely black. Shoichi Kamon points out that Western ships coming into contact with the Japanese coast at this time were called Kuro-fune (black ships), due to their waterproofing by tar.

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1825 ink drawing of the utsuro-bune credited to Bakin Takizawa (Kyokutei) — Source. Another version can be found in Nihon zuihitsu taisei dai-ni-ki (1928).

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