Utsuro-bune (うつろ舟 ‘hollow ship’), also Utsuro-fune, and Urobune, refers to an unknown object that allegedly washed ashore in 1803 in Hitachi province on the eastern coast of Japan. When defining Utsuro-bune, the bune part means “boat” while Utsuro means empty, or hollow. Accounts of the tale appear in three texts: Toen shōsetsu (1825), Hyōryū kishū (1835) and Ume-no-chiri (1844).
According to legend, an attractive young woman aged 18-20 years old, arrived on a local beach aboard the “hollow ship” on February 22, 1803. Fishermen brought her inland to investigate further, but the woman was unable to communicate in Japanese. She was very different than anyone there. The fishermen then returned her and her vessel to the sea, where it drifted away.
Historians, ethnologists and physicists such as Kazuo Tanaka and Yanagita Kunio have evaluated the “legend of the hollow boat” as part of a long-standing tradition within Japanese folklore. Alternatively, certain ufologist’s have claimed that the story represents evidence for a close encounter of the third kind.
The best-known versions of the legend are found in three texts:
Toen shōsetsu (兎園小説, “tales from the rabbit garden”), composed in 1825 by Kyokutei Bakin. The manuscript is today on display at the Mukyū-Kai-Toshokan at Machida (Tokyo prefecture).
Hyōryū kishū (漂流紀集, “diaries and stories of castaways”), composed during the Edo period in 1835 by an unknown author. It is today on display at the library of the Tenri University at Tenri in the Nara prefecture.
Ume-no-chiri (梅の塵, “dust of the apricot”), composed in 1844 by Nagahashi Matajirō. It is today on display at the private library Iwase-Bunko-Toshokan (岩瀬文庫図書館) at Nara.
Description in all three books bear similarity, thus they seem to have the same historical origins. The book Toen shōsetsu contains the most detailed version.
On February 22, 1803, local fishers of the Harayadori (はらやどり) shore in the Hitachi province saw an ominous “ship” drifting in the waters. Curious, they towed the vessel back to land, discovering that it was 3.30 metres (10.83 feet) high and 5.45 metres (17.88 feet) wide, reminding the witnesses of a Kōhako (Japanese incense burner). Its upper part appeared to be made of red coated rosewood, while the lower part was covered with brazen plates, obviously to protect it against the sharp-edged rocks. The upper part had several windows made of glass or crystal, covered with bars and clogged with some kind of tree resin. The shape of the hollow boat resembled a wooden rice pit. The windows were completely transparent and the baffled fishermen looked inside. The inner side of the Utsuro-bune was decorated with texts written in an unknown language. The fishermen found items inside such as two bed sheets, a bottle filled with 3.6 liters of water, some cake and kneaded meat. Then the fishermen saw a beautiful young woman, possibly 18 or 20 years old. Her body size was said to be 1.5 meters (4.92 feet). The woman had red hair and eyebrows, the hair elongated by artificial white extensions. The extensions could have been made of white fur or thin, white-powdered textile streaks. This hairstyle cannot be found in any literature. The skin of the lady was a very pale pink color. She wore precious, long and smooth clothes of unknown fabrics. The woman began speaking, but no one understood her. She did not seem to understand the fishermen either, so no one could ask her about her origin. Although the mysterious woman appeared friendly and courteous, she acted oddly, for she always clutched a quadratic box made of pale material and around 0.6 m (24 in) in size. The woman did not allow anyone to touch the box, no matter how kindly or pressingly the witnesses asked.
An old man from the village said in theory, “This woman could be a princess of a foreign realm, who married at her homeland. But when she had an affair with a townsman after marriage, it caused a scandal and the lover was killed for punishment. The princess was banned from home, for she enjoyed lots of sympathy, so she escaped the death penalty. Instead, she might have been exposed in that Utsuro-bune to leave her to destiny. If this should be correct, the quadratic box may contain the head of the woman’s deceased lover. In the past, a very similar object with a woman was washed ashore on a close-by beach. During this incident, a small board with a pinned head was found. The content of the box could therefore be the same, which would certainly explain why she protects it so much. It would cost lots of money and time to investigate the woman and her boat. Since it seems to be tradition to expose those boats at sea, we should bring the woman back to the Utsuro-bune and let her drift away. The townspeople were frightened. In a different version, the lady from the hollow boat stays where she landed and grows to old age. From human sight it might be cruel, but it seems to be her predetermined destiny.” The fishermen reassembled the Utsuro-bune, placed the woman in it, and set it to drift away into the ocean.
Ume no chiri
On March 24, 1803, at the beach of ‘Harato-no-hama’ (原舎浜) in the Hitachi province, a strange ‘boat’ was washed ashore. It reminded the witnesses of a rice cooking pot, around its middle it had a thickened rim. It was also coated with black paint and it had four little windows on four sides. The windows had bars and they were clogged with tree resin. The lower part of the boat was protected by brazen plates which looked to be made of iron of the highest western quality. The height of the boat was 3.33 m (10.83ft) and its breadth was 5.41 m (17.75ft). A woman of 20 years was found in the boat. Her body size was 1.5 m (4.92ft) and her skin was as white as snow. The long hair dangled smoothly down along her back. Her face was of indescribable beauty. The dress of the woman was of unknown style and no one could recognize it. She spoke an unknown language. She held a small box no one was allowed to touch. Inside the boat two unusually soft carpets of unknown style and fabric were found. There were supplies such as cake, kneaded food and meat. A beautifully decorated cup with ornaments no one could identify was also found.
There are several further documents about Utsuro-bune sightings in Japan, for example ‘Hirokata Zuihitsu’ (弘賢随筆) and ‘Ōshu Kuzakki’ (鶯宿雑記). The investigation started in 1844, and continued in 1925, and 1962. In 2010 and 2012 two rare ink printings were found and investigated by Kazuo Tanaka. In 1977 They contained stories about Utsuro-bune with very similar content to that of the Hyōryū kishū, although they claim a different location for the events: ‘Minato Bōshū’ (港房州) (harbour of Bōshū).
Other legends concerning Utsuro-bune
A well known Japanese legend is that of the origin of the Kawano dynasty. In the 7th century, a fisherman named ‘Wakegorō’ (和気五郎) from Gogo island found a 13-year-old girl inside an Utsuro-bune drifting at sea. He brought her to land, where she told him that she was the daughter of the Chinese emperor and that she had been forced to flee to escape her stepmother. The fisherman named her “Wake-hime” (和気姫) (“princess Wake”) and raised her, before she married an imperial prince of Iyo province and gave birth to a son named “Ochimiko” (小千御子), the ancestor of the Kawano dynasty. A part of this folktale held that she was responsible for bringing the first silk cocoons to Japan. Princess Wake is still worshipped at a certain Shinto shrine in the village of Funakoshi, Go-Go island.
There are more myths that share many similarities to Utsune-Bune. Toen shosetsu, which translates to “rabbit in the garden”, a book written by Kyokutei Bakin, tells the story of a few castaways marking their journey and end up in the same situation. Another story written by an unknown author Umi-nu-chiri, which translates to “dust of the apricot” is another story that shares many similarities to Utsuro-Bune.
The first historical investigations of the Utsuro-bune incident were conducted in 1844 by Kyokutei Bakin (1767–1848). Kyokutei reports about a book called Roshia bunkenroku (魯西亜聞見録 ‘Records of seen and heard things from Russia’), written by Kanamori Kinken. The book describes traditional Russian clothes and hairstyles and mentions a popular method to dust hair with white powder. It also mentions that many Russian women have natural red hair and that they wear skirts, similar to that of the lady of the legend. Based upon the book, Kyokutei suggests that the woman of the Utsuro-bune incident could have been of Russian origin. He writes that the stories are similar to each other, as they differ only in minor descriptions (for example, one documents says “3.6 liters of water”, another says “36 liters of water”). He also questions the origin of the alleged exotic symbols found in and on the boat. Because he is convinced that he saw similar signs on a British whaler stranded shortly before his writing, Kyokutei wonders if the woman was a Russian, British or even American princess. Furthermore, he expresses his disappointment about the drawings of the Utsuro-bune, because they obviously do not fully match the witness descriptions.
Further investigations of the Utsuro-bune incident were done in 1925 and in 1962 by ethnologist and historian Yanagida Kunio. He points out that circular boats were never anything unusual in Japan since early times; only the western-like details, such as the windows made of glass and the brazen protective plates, make the Utsuro-bune look exotic. He also found out that most legends similar to that of the Utsuro-bune sound alike: Someone finds a strange girl or young woman inside a circular boat and rescues the stranded or sends her back to the ocean. Yanagida also points out that the eldest versions of Utsuro-bune describe humble, circular and open log-boats without any dome atop. Yanagida assumes that the details of the brazen plates and windows made of glass or crystal were added because skeptics would question the seaworthiness of a humble log-boat on the high seas. A steel reinforced Utsuro-bune with glass windows would more easily survive travelling on the ocean than an open, unreinforced wooden boat.
Dr. Kazuo Tanaka (田中 嘉津夫), Japanese professor for computer and electronics engineering from Gifu University at Tokyo (東京), investigated the original scripts in 1997. He considers the popular comparisons of the Utsuro-bune with modern UFO sightings to be far-fetched. He points out that the Utsuro-bune of the legends never flies or moves on its own, nor does it show any signs of extraordinary technologies. It simply drifts motionless on the water. Tanaka concludes that the tale of the Utsuro-bune was a literary mixture of folklore and imaginations. He bases his assumptions on the 1925 investigations of the Japanese historian Yanagida Kunio, who had also studied the tales of the Utsuro-bune.
Dr. Tanaka himself found out that the locations “Haratono-hama” and “Harayadori” are fictitious. To make the anecdote sound credible, the author designated the beaches as personal acreages of a Daimyō named Ogasawara Nagashige. This daimyō actually lived during the Edo period, but his acreages were placed at heartland and it seems sure that Ogasawara never had any contact with the fishermen of the Pacific coast. The Ogasawara clan served the famous Tokugawa dynasty, who held power over the most north-eastern part of Japan until 1868 and their main acreages were placed in the Hitashi province, geographically very close to the eastern beaches. Tanaka finds it very odd that no incident of such alleged importance was commented on in the curatorial documents, since strangers leaving the shore had to be reported at once. But the only remarkable incident during the late Tokugawa dynasty happened in 1824, when a British whaler was stranded at the north-eastern coast of the Hitachi district. Tanaka also found out that, during the rulership of the Tokugawa clan, the Ogasawara family and the Tokugawa started mapping their territories and acreages. And both names of “Haratono-hama” and “Harayadori” are missing. They also do not appear on the maps of the first complete mappings of the whole of Japan in 1907. If the name of a village, city or place had changed in history, this would have been noted in some curatorial documents, but it is not. Tanaka thinks it rather unlikely that important places such as “Haratono-hama” and “Harayadori” actually could have been forgotten in records.
The peculiar European appearance of the woman, the upper part of the Utsuro-bune and the unknown writings lead Tanaka and Yanagida to the conclusion that the whole story was based on the historical circumstance that people of the Edo period totally encapsulated Japan against the outer world. To bedizen a stranded woman with European attributes showed how much the peoples were afraid of bad cultural influences from the western world, especially North America and Great Britain. The story of the Utsuro-bune is significantly constructed in a way that makes the tale sound incredible at one site, but self-explaining at the same time (the woman and her craft are sent away so no one could ever consult her personally).
Furthermore, Tanaka and Yanagida point out that the people of Edo period shared great interests in paranormal things such as poltergeists, will-o’-the-wisps, ball lightnings and monsters, so it would not be surprising to find stories of exotic boats like the Utsuro-bune.
In his conclusions, Tanaka points to the difficulty in the correct reading of the place names. In modern transcriptions, the Kanji 原舎 have to be read as Harasha. But in Toen Shōsetsu the signs are written in Kana and they have to be read as Hara-yadori. In Ume no chiri they are written in Furigana making the place to be named as Haratono-hama. Alternatively, the kanji for Haratono could be read as Hara-yadori. According to Tanaka’s investigations, the transcription of 原舎ヶ浜 in the Hyōryū Kishū as “Harasha-ga-hama” is therefore a typo based on a misreading and should originally be read as “Haratono-ga-hama”. Thus, all writings describe the same place. Tanaka also points out that the word Utsuro means “empty” or “abandoned” and that the word Utsubo means “quiver” and describes the bags in which hunters and archers once carried their arrows. But both words also describe old, hollowed tree trunks and branch holes of sacred trees. The word Fune/Bune simply means “boat”. Altogether, the word Utsuro-bune means “hollow ship”.
On May 26, 2014, The Ibaragi Shimbun (茨城新聞 Ibaragi Shinbun) reported Tanaka found Jinichi Kawakami’s palaeography (ja:古文書 Komonjyo) regarding Utsuro-bune strange story (うつろ舟奇談 Uturobune kidan) and place name Hitachihara Sharihama (常陸原舎り濱)(as of 2014, Hasakisharihama, Kamisu (神栖市波崎舎利浜)) where coast surveyed in 1801 and on Dai Nihon Enkai Yochi Zenzu (ja:大日本沿海輿地全図 maps of Japan’s coastal area) by Inō Tadataka.
In Ufology, the legend of the Utsuro-bune has been described as an early case of a documented close encounter of the third kind based on the similarities between the drawings of the vessel from the Edo period and 20th century descriptions of flying saucers. Some Ufologists suggest the Utsuro-bune could have been an unidentified submarine object (USO). They note the mysterious symbols which were reportedly found on the object that regularly appear as addenda within the depictions. They are suggested by some to be similar to the symbols reported at the Rendlesham Forest Incident in England, which was used by the United States Air force. The same writing is also found in caves. Caves also show many drawings of odd figures along the symbols. UFO proponents further point to the ominous box held by the woman as well as her physical appearance and unusual dress as evidence of an extraterrestrial encounter. The assumptions of any historian and ethnologist about those items are repeatedly ignored.