Most people think that they are quite rational. This is probably one of the biggest things holding humanity back. The truth is that the rational course of action is often different depending on your sociocultural framework. What's rational to some may be irrational to others.
What would you do if you found a strange saucer-shaped boat with a strange woman inside on the beach near your village? To the villagers of Hitachi province in 1803, the rational thing to do was to put her back. Send the strange woman back out to sea with no food or water. Logic, it's illogical.
Welcome to Japan, You'll be Leaving Soon
Japan was a small nation with strong cultural norms. They were essentially living in the equivalent of the European Medieval era when the first Europeans arrived in 1543.
Japanese officials recognized the threat posed by European culture and religion. They acted fast and closed off their nation to foreign influence. One tiny port was designated for trade with the Dutch. That was it.
The average Japanese peasant would have heard little more than rumors and speculation about Europeans or the world beyond Japan. European ships were called Black Ships, and they carried alien people.
When the story of Utsuro Bune took place, Japan was still firmly locked down. It would be 50 years before American Commodore Matthew Perry would arrive with ships of war to force them to open their borders to foreigners.
They would be familiar with the design and implementation of various Asian boats. So when an entirely unknown vessel washed ashore in 1803, they didn't really know what to make of it.
What makes an Alien?
Today we have a definite mental image of “Aliens”. Usually the word calls up the bulbous head and oval eyes of the Gray Aliens. We must not forget that the word actually means something that is so foreign it is outside our frame of reference. Novelty trumps manners, always.
What is alien to some might be familiar to others. I have personally experienced being an alien visitor when I lived in China. The city I lived in didn't get many foreigners. Local people treated me as a novelty, took photos, yelled when they saw me in public, and constantly invaded my personal space by touching my face, hair, and body.
In this tale, the stranger in the Utsuro Bune is literally an alien to the fishermen of Hitachi. That doesn't mean that she's from a different planet. Just a sufficiently different world.
Utsuro Bune - The “Hollow Ship”
According to the legend, as recorded in the book Toen Shosetsu, villagers in Hitachi came across a strange boat while on their way to go fishing. Eventually the boat floated to the beach.
They described the boat as having two distinct halves and being shaped like an incense burner (Kohako). The top half was a reddish wood with glass windows, and the bottom half was reinforced with metal. Approaching the vessel, they saw windows made of some kind of clear crystal with bars of metal reinforcing them. Those bars had an unknown liquid covering them.
Of course the fisherman flocked to the strange object on the beach. Taking a peek through the windows, they could see the interior looked “like the inside of a rice bowl”. The interior walls were covered in strange writing. They could see a stash of food and meat and a large bottle of water. Hanging off of a strut were a set of bedsheets.
Soon they also took note of the boat's occupant. The woman was tall and beautiful. She looked unlike any woman they had seen. Her hair was long and bright red, except for the tips which were white extensions made of fur or strips of thin material. She wore smooth clothes made of a fine material.
The men thought that she must have been around 20 years old. Her skin was apparently pink, and even her eyebrows were red. As someone who has spent some time around rural people, I can confirm that there was probably quite a bit of touching involved in their inspection.
The terrified woman gripped a pale box that she didn't let anyone touch. She spoke in a strange language that the fishermen couldn't understand. Whenever the men would reach “innocently” for the box (let's be honest, everyone was a stranger here, what they might interpret as innocent may have appeared hostile to her) she would recoil in terror.
There are two versions of what happened next. One story has the fishermen leaving the Utsuro Bune there and allowing the woman to live out her life in Hitachi. The more popular version sees the fishermen decide they've seen enough of the alien woman and shoving her and her Utsuro Bune back out to sea.
The Old Man Speaks
According to the legend, Toen shōsetsu, an old man from the village spoke then. He is portrayed as the voice of wisdom and reason. Directly translated, he mentioned a similar occurrence and gave advice on a course of action:
“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 old man's monologue was likely a literary invention added onto the story later. It is fun to imagine a village elder going off on a tangent while the fishermen listen intently to his story.
The first person to investigate the legend of Utsuro Bune was a scholar named Kyokutei Bakin, in 1844. He notes that the woman's clothes were similar to those mentioned in the book Roshia bunkenroku (Records of seen and heard things from Russia, by Kanamori Kinken).
Taking the text into account, Bakin theorized that the woman may have been of Russian origin. He further speculated that she might be a Russian princess, or perhaps a British or American princess.
His investigation laid the groundwork for future scholars to conduct their own explorations of the legend of the Utsuro Bune.
The historian Yanagida Kunio had his own theories in 1925. He found that the oldest versions of the tale described a circular log-boat. Circular boats would have been a common sight. What makes the Utsuro Bune stand out, in his opinion, was the top half and the metallic bottom. Both of those details he believed were added to reinforce the legend as it met skepticism. People would question how such a vessel could be seaworthy, and the storytellers would add more details.
He identified that similar legends were quite common in the past. Always with one of two outcomes for the woman, happily ever after or being returned to the sea. The existence of two versions of the story indicates that while there may have been truth to it initially, the event had been consumed by its own folklore. Kunio's investigation would inspire the next generation of inquiry in 1997.
He found many discrepancies between the original texts and reality. His investigation gets very technical, but here are some of the highlights in a digestible list format:
The locations of the village, “Haratono-hama” and “Harayadori”, mentioned in the legend, are fictitious.
The beaches are noted as belonging to Daimyō Ogasawara Nagashige, but his lands were inland, and he owned no coastal lands
The land actually belonged to the Tokugawa family, who kept meticulous records of things such as foreign visitors. They had no record of the appearance of the Utsuro Bune and the strange pink woman.
He mentions that people back then loved paranormal stories. They would have enjoyed a story like this, just as we do today. This could be why the legend survived, or it could mean that it was made up as pure entertainment.
Was it a UFO?
Modern theories suggest that the Utsuro Bune was actually a flying saucer that crashed in the ocean and drifted to shore. The pink woman was actually an extraterrestrial who just happened to look like a European woman.
This theory is largely based on the shape of the boat. It does resemble modern reports of flying discs, but nowhere is it mentioned to be able of flying. Technically the Utsuro Bune was a UFO (Unidentified Floating Object), and its occupant and alien (stranger).
European looking aliens have been reported in modern UFO folklore. The Nordic Aliens are apparently very tall, with blond hair and bright blue eyes. Nothing potentially problematic there.
It's a fun legend that may have a kernel of truth to it. That truth might never be found, but it is unlikely that this story describes an encounter with an extraterrestrial.