Mysterious castaway

According to several accounts, in 1803 a tiny boat with transparent windows washed up on the shores of Japan. Inside, one woman and one big mystery.

Utsuro bune
Kyokutei Bakin (1767–1848) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There are three Japanese accounts of this event, written between 1825 and 1844. They differ in a few details but are pretty consistent otherwise. This is the basic story, from the first written account: fishermen found a strange boat floating in the waters off the shore of Hitachi province. It was a little capsule just large enough to contain a single person. The top of the capsule had clear windows covered by bars and some kind of sticky substance (the written accounts identify it as tree resin). Inside was a young woman.

The accounts are notable mainly for their confusion. They didn’t recognise her language, her clothes, or her hairstyle (she was apparently a redhead). The inside of the “boat” was covered in writing in a language that… surprise surprise… they could not read. Most curiously, the woman clutched a small box of unknown material and would not let anyone else touch it.

Paranormalists love this story, because drawings of the boat look a lot like UFOs. But there are a couple of  problems.

  1. In the 19th century, Japan was famously closed off to almost all outsiders – the Sakoku policy forbade contact with the outside world except through designated trading stations. So it’s unlikely the fishermen would recognise foreign language, writing, or dress anyway.
  2. The whole thing could be just a legend, a piece of folklore. The multiple accounts could all be derived and embellished from a single story. The place names mentioned in the story do not appear in contemporary inventories and maps.

There’s no physical evidence one way or the other, alas. In the accounts, the fishermen return the woman to her ship and set it adrift on the ocean once more.

[Thanks to Futility Closet for introducing me to this topic.]


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