the online database of Japanese folkore

Utsurobune

虚舟
うつろぶね

Translation: hollow ship
Alternate names: utsubobune

Appearance: Utsurobune are strange boats that have drifted ashore in Japan’s coastal prefectures several times throughout history. Different accounts vary on some details, such as when and where the boats appeared, but agree on others, such as its appearance and its inhabitant.

Origin: The most well-known utsurobune appeared in Hitachi Province (Ibaraki Prefecture) in 1803—in February at Harayadori according to one account, and in March at Haratonohama according to another. However neither of these locations match anywhere in historical records. Other utsurobune sightings took place in 1883 in Kōbe City, 1796 in Kaga Province (Ishikawa Prefecture), and in 1681 in Owari Province (Aichi Prefecture) and Echigo Province (Niigata Prefecture). They go back as far as the 7th century, when a girl named Wake hime was discovered in a strange round boat in Iyo Province (Ehime Prefecture). She claimed to be the daughter of the Chinese emperor.

Utsurobune sightings have been researched by authors like Kyokutei Bakin and folklorists like Yanagita Kunio. Various explanations have been given for the real identity behind the utsurobune and its inhabitant. The red hair, white skin, strange materials, and unknown language suggest that she could have been European, and Kyokutei Bakin believed she might have been a Russian princess—or possibly British, American, or even Bengali. Utsurobune stories share several themes with marebito legends about gods visiting villagers from across the sea, and Yanagita Kunio believed that the accounts were simply fabrications built upon earlier folktales—perhaps remnants an ancient national memory about immigration to Japan. More recently, ufologists have suggested that utsurobune were flying saucers which crash landed in Japan centuries before the idea of UFOs entered the global imagination.

Legends: In 1803, a strange vessel drifted to shore in Hitachi Province. The object was shaped like a circular box about 5.4 meters in diameter and 3.3 meters in height. The upper section was made of wood and transparent glass plates, and sealed with tree resin. The lower section was lined with metal sheets.

Villagers peered inside the glass windows and saw that the inside of the boat was decorated with text written in a strange, unknown language. A few supplies were contained within, including two fancy rugs for a makeshift bed, a jug of water, a brazier, a decorative earthenware dish and teacup, and some cakes and kneaded meat.

A beautiful young woman emerged from the boat. She was about twenty years old, from an unknown foreign country. Her skin was pale and clean, and she stood 1.5 meters tall. She had red eyebrows and long red hair with extensions made of white fur or threads. She wore fine clothing made from unknown fabrics. She carried a plain-looking box, which must have been valuable because she would not put it down and would not let anyone touch it. The woman seemed polite and friendly, but her language was unrecognizable. Nobody could figure out where she came from.

Nobody knew what to do with the strange girl. One villager suggested that the woman might be a foreign princess. She may have been exiled for having an extramarital affair. Her lover was executed, but since she was a beloved princess, she was merely exiled to sea. The box she carried probably contained her lover’s head, which is why she guarded it so strongly.

The villagers worried that if she was indeed an exiled princess, they could be ordered to spend a great deal of money investigating her. They decided the best solution was to return her to sea and leave her to her fate. The strange woman was forced back into her boat and pushed out to sea again.

Alphabetical list of yōkai