Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In 1803, Japan had an encounter with an unidentified floating object

A 19th century image of a large boat navigating through a Japanese swamp
Photo: Buyenlarge (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Utsuro-bune

What it’s about: We’re actually not sure. Translating roughly to “hollow ship,” utsuro-bune was a mysterious vessel shaped like an incense burner, which washed ashore in Hitachi (present-day Ibaraki Prefecture) on Japan’s east coast in 1803. Inside was a strange young woman who spoke no Japanese, who eventually returned to sea inside her vessel. Was she an alien? A time traveler? Probably not! But to this day no one knows who she was or where she came from, but the story is well-documented enough that somebody was likely in the hollow ship.

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Biggest controversy: UFOlogists have embraced the Utsuro-bure legend, as the saucer shape of the ship and the involvement of a figure with an unusual appearance (see below) and indecipherable language dovetail with classic UFO sightings. But like most UFO sightings, the hollow ship’s alien origins are pretty easily debunked. Gifu University professor Dr. Kazuo Tanaka studied the original writings about Utsuro-bure in 1997, and concluded that the hollow ship—which isn’t technologically advanced apart from its odd shape, doesn’t fly, and in fact doesn’t seem to propel itself at all and simply drifts with the current—doesn’t give anyone any reason to think it came from above.

Strangest fact: The mysterious woman may simply have been the first white person anyone in Hitachi had ever seen. She was described in different accounts as having skin that was either snow white or pale pink, red hair with white extensions, and clothes made of unknown fabrics. Red hair is not uncommon in Russia, and Russian women dusting their hair with white powder was fashionable at the time. Descriptions of the strange woman’s clothes are closer to Russian dress than Japanese, and the two countries’ written languages are different enough that Cyrillic may have seemed like indecipherable symbols to Japanese fishermen.

Thing we were happiest to learn: There’s a mystery within the mystery. Along with food and bed sheets, the ship contained a “quadratic box” two feet on a side. (A Google search tells us that a quadratic box is a mathematical tool in which you draw a foursquare to work out a quadratic equation. We assume “quadratic” here means “cube-shaped,” although that isn’t terribly clear). The strange woman clutched the box and refused to let anyone look inside, although she was otherwise very friendly. An old man from the fishing village where the boat washed ashore had an oddly specific theory that she was a foreign princess who had an affair, her lover was killed, she escaped in the boat, and the box contained his head. Although the box is the right size to contain a head, there’s nothing that particularly supports this theory.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: This may simply be a retelling of an earlier story. According to legend, the Kawano dynasty was founded when a 7th-century fisherman found a 13-year-old girl adrift at sea in a boat. She told him she was the daughter of the Chinese emperor, who fled her stepmother. The fisherman adopted her, and married her to a prince. Their son, Ochimiko, was the ancestor of the Kawano dynasty. It’s not clear when or even if the Kawano dynasty ruled, as there’s no mention of it on Wikipedia apart from this page, and the only references elsewhere online are simply retellings of this legend.

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Also noteworthy: Dr. Tanaka’s research also concluded that Harayadori, the region in Hitachi where the hollow ship washed up, never actually existed. It wasn’t on any contemporary maps, and seems to have been fictionalized by the first person to chronicle the Utsuro-bune story.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Utsuro-bune apparently falls into the category of Forteana, named for occult writer Charles Fort, and meaning, “a distinctive blend of mocking humor, penetrating insight, and calculated outrageousness.” This nebulous category includes the paranormal, cryptozoology, exploding animals, and all manner of fringe science. It also includes past Wiki Wormholes including Mike the Headless Chicken, the Green Children of Woolpit, and Gef the Talking Mongoose.

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Further Down the Wormhole: The theory of the strange woman in the boat being Russian began with Kyokutei Bakin’s 1844 investigation into the Utsuro-bune incidence, collected in a book called Records Of Seen And Heard Things From Russia. In modern times, our new Russian overlords are a permanent member of the UN Security Council, alongside China, France, the UK, and the US. Five other seats on the Council rotate annually, and are currently held by Belgium, Germany, Indonesia, South Africa, and the Dominican Republic. The latter country shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, not always peacefully. We’ll find out how parsley played a pivotal role in one of the worst bouts of violence between the two nations next week.

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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.