Summary: The skies above Japan are alive with extraterrestrial activity, according to the nation’s foremost UFO research group and its fearless leader. Matt Wilce examines the evidence.
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Every January more than two million people crowd the grounds of Harajuku’s Meiji Jingu to celebrate the New Year, but these revelers aren’t the only beings checking out the shrine. On October 11, 1999, roughly 60 transparent rings appeared in the sky over the shrine and were witnessed and photographed by Junichi Kato and his OUR-J UFO group. On other occasions, unidentified shapes and lights have been spotted in the area with remarkable frequency, leading to its reputation as one of Japan’s alien hotspots.
“I’d seen groups of six or seven objects several times before, but nothing like that,” says Kato, leader of the UFO research group, describing October 1999 sighting. The sense of excitement Kato felt on witnessing the scene is evident in the smile that spreads across his normally serious face as he lays out pictures of the unusual aqueous-looking rings in the small office the group rents in Suidobashi. “It was the first time I’d seen anything like it and everyone just gasped. There were so many we couldn’t count,” says Toshie Nakagawa, one of “several hundred” members of the OUR-J group that was founded in January 2000. “We were speechless—all we could think was ‘UFOs really do exist,’” adds Kato. The group’s pictures of the rings were later published in UFO Magazine and the sighting remains one of their most impressive.
Kato, who’s a regular salaryman by day, notes that his group has a high success rate with their field trips to Meiji Shrine, but is quick to point out that “UFOs fly everywhere” and he dismisses the idea that they are attracted only to specific spots. “Meiji Jingu definitely has a mysterious aspect and for some reason UFOs do appear there frequently. The most common at the shrine are the ones that look like pachinko balls,” he concedes.
Kato’s remarkable record in witnessing unidentified objects has led to him being credited with some kind of alien telepathy. “I often get asked by TV shows or reporters to do a ‘UFO call’ and summon them up, but I wouldn’t exactly call it telepathy,” he says. “That implies two-way communication and really involves the separate question of whether UFOs are alien in origin or not. The American military came up with the definition of UFO and there are many cases where an object can be disqualified based on various factors. It doesn’t necessarily follow that a UFO is alien in origin, from another planet, or piloted by extraterrestrials, and it’s important to make that distinction.”
But if he’s not chatting with aliens or inviting the UFOs to make a trip to Tokyo, how does Kato explain his remarkable success in sighting, filming and photographing UFOs? “Some people say that if you don’t believe in UFOs then you can’t see them—I don’t think that’s true at all,” he states, surrounded by shelves of books in English and Japanese on everything from “sky fish” to the Roswell landings. “The first step is to go to a place that is quiet, with open skies and where you can concentrate. Then you just need to focus on the feeling that you want to see a UFO.” Kato draws an analogy with wildlife cameramen or fishermen who go out into the wild with a desire to see or catch a particular rare species and have a high success rate but can’t exactly explain how they know where to drop line or set up their tripod.
It came from outer space?
It was Kato’s first close encounter at age 5 in a field in Akita Prefecture that began his lifelong interest in watching the skies. As he was playing baseball outside with his brother and some friends, a strange light appeared above them. “It was a large elliptical orange thing, kind of like a bike wheel, although I’m not sure if it was rotating.” Unbeknown to the youngsters at the time, the same day more than 50 people at Akita Airport witnessed a similar phenomenon—a golden disk suspended in midair for about 10 minutes—that prompted air-traffic controllers to warn incoming flights of a possible obstacle above the runway. A local film crew shooting a documentary at the airport captured the scene on film, providing them with a major scoop and evidence of the encounter, which Kato claims made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, although it no longer appears to be listed.
The mid-’70s saw a flurry of similar UFO activity over Japan, including the sighting of a dark object hovering above the Imperial Palace. The suspected UFO was reportedly witnessed by the National Police, who watched from their nearby offices. Increasingly frequent UFO sightings led to the country’s first official investigation conducted by the Japanese Air Force in 1977, although their findings reportedly proved inconclusive.
“In Japan, most UFO groups are cults or religious groups, we’re not like that,” Kato says, bemoaning the lack of serious ufologists here. “I make it clear to members that they shouldn’t hide their interest from their families, this isn’t something to hide,” he adds, noting that his own family thinks his ufological exploits are “normal.”
“There’s nobody doing the kind of rigorous investigation work that British and American investigators do,” Kato says. Nevertheless, his guest lectures at universities and OUR-J’s work in collecting sighting reports and conducting surveys make them one of the leaders in the field and have won Kato recognition overseas. “Kato has worked hard to keep OUR-J’s members focused on the more pragmatic and scientific aspects of UFO study. At the same time he has not done it in a ‘dry’ or rigid manner and seems to have both the passion and personality to pull it off,” says Peter Robbins, author of “Left at East Gate” and editor of UFOcity.com.
Beyond the stars
While OUR-J works hard to put a reputable face on UFO research in Japan, suspicion of those who believe in such phenomena remains common. The prevalence of cults and new religions with bizarre belief systems continues despite the high-profile crimes of the Aum Shinrikyo sect. When Clonaid announced earlier this year that their third human clone had been born to Japanese parents, 60 members of the Raelian Movement caused a stir marching through Hiroshima in celebration. The Raelians, who believe that human life is the product of an alien cloning experiment, received one of their highest donations from an unnamed Japanese woman—her $57,000 contribution equaled more than half the total amount they raised in the US last year.
“Japan is such a tightly regimented society that many individuals who claim to be seeking explanations for UFOs and related phenomenon are really looking for a belief system that points toward answers to the increasingly difficult problems surrounding us. A race of more evolved beings ‘somewhere out there’ who could help us to solve our problems can exert a tantalizing draw on otherwise intelligent and grounded individuals,” comments Robbins, who has more than 25 years experience in the field.
Nick Pope, a British Ministry of Defence employee who conducted official investigations of UFO sightings, agrees that “often, an individual or a group of individuals can have a disproportionate influence on the subject, especially in a monopoly or near monopoly situation. For example, if one UFO group is sufficiently influential, it can effectively set the ufological agenda through a magazine, conferences, website and access to the mainstream media. As media becomes more global, and as Internet access grows, I would expect national factors to become less significant.”
Kato laments that many of the so-called UFO experts in Japan still refer to discredited or outdated research, particularly the work of George Adamski. A bestselling writer on the topic in the ’50s and ’60s, Adamski popularized the bell-shaped flying saucer and was once described as “a crackpot from California” by Time magazine. “The Japanese mass media still promote the Adamski-type of UFO and so that’s what people say they think UFOs look like when we conduct surveys,” says Kato. “This kind of misreporting undermines serious ufology.”
OUR-J’s own data, compiled from detailed report forms they collect from people who have seen UFOs and their field trips, shows that the most common type of UFO spotted above Japan bears a striking resemblance to the humble pachinko ball. Other common types include ovals and lemon-shaped objects, which Kato describes as being surrounded by a nebulous field. Reports of Adamski-type UFOs make up less than one percent of all sightings. “The ring type [seen at Meiji Shrine] is the strangest that we’ve seen,” he notes.
A regular on a cable TV show about the paranormal, Kato refuses to be drawn on whether he has personally had a close encounter with an alien. “No comment,” he answers before elaborating. His reluctance to give a definitive answer is partly due to the influence that the media can have on shaping perceptions of the UFO phenomena. “In the 1950s, Adamski popularized the idea of human-like aliens that were peaceful in intent,” he says. In the 1960s, abduction reports became common, as did descriptions of “gray-type” aliens.
“Movies and the media have a lot of power and can force a particular perception on people. It’s better not to have the image of what aliens might be fixed by the media. It’s better that we think for ourselves what extraterrestrials are like,” Kato says, the alien key chain and magnets on his office whiteboard hinting that even ufologists are not immune to the commercialization of our extraterrestrial neighbors.
“With UFOs usually several people witness the same thing, you can take photos and film, and people can agree that they have seen something strange. There is documentary evidence you can examine,” Kato concludes. “With extraterrestrials it’s hard to establish the truth; anyone can say, ‘I am an alien,’ but how do you prove it?” Perhaps, as they say, the truth is out there.
Copyright OUR-J 2003