Here Be Monsters

Here Be Monsters

From ESP labs to Pokemon panics to death cults, Japan is a wonderland of the bizarre. Metropolis takes a Fortean approach to the country’s mysteries


Originally published on on June 2008



In the old days of discovery, the edges of explorers’ maps sometimes bore the legend “Here be monsters,” signifying the mysterious and potentially dangerous nature of undiscovered regions. For most of its history, Japan was positioned in this fringe realm, near the extremes of the known world—an enigmatic and enchanted land of the strange and the supernatural.

Marco Polo, the medieval traveler who heard of Japan while at the court of Khubla Khan, wrote that it was a land with palaces literally made of gold, a legend that later inspired Christopher Columbus to sail west from Europe in search of it. When the rest of the world finally caught up with Japan in the 19th century, strenuous attempts were made to catalogue and explain the country in terms that made sense to Western empirical science. Japan, however, has never quite fitted the mould of a narrow-minded rationalism that simply rejects anything it can’t explain.

One of the first to highlight these shortcomings in Western scientific rationalism was the American writer Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932), who named his most important work The Book of the Damned (1919) to refer to all the data that was “damned” or ignored by science—things like UFO sightings, news of strange objects falling from the skies, and sightings of supposedly “mythological” creatures. Rather than ignoring oddities, anomalies and gray areas like this, Fort believed in investigating them with a skeptical but open and curious mind.

This Fortean approach is also the best way to explore and understand Japan’s mysterious side—its weird cults, undiscovered animals, lost civilizations and even the ESP experiments recently carried out by a major Japanese corporation. David Sutton, editor of Fortean Times, a UK monthly magazine that’s a repository of the arcane, offbeat and unexplained, agrees, but adds that such an approach also enhances our understanding of the cultural and sociological factors that may lie behind reported phenomena.

“The particular Fortean phenomena reported in a place may reveal an actual real thing or something about the culture, mindset and preoccupations of the people living in that area,” Sutton says. “In the case of Japan, they probably also reveal tensions between traditional belief systems and customs and the rapid industrial and technological expansion of the postwar years, as well as perhaps the country’s relationship with the West, particularly America. Kitsune fox spirits and UFOs are both found in Japan, but the latter are to some extent an American global export, while the former are an indigenous form of a possibly universal set of mythic archetypes.”

While science has a tendency to exclude anything that can’t be quickly proved and classified, the Fortean mindset is more comfortable with changing probabilities and shifting categories. Loren Coleman, an author of several books on cryptozoology, the study of species that have yet to be scientifically confirmed, sees Japan’s more mysterious wildlife as a continuum of possibilities that range from creatures likely to be real to the practically mythical.

“I think that the Japanese universe of cryptids is a really interesting thing,” he says. “I would go all the way from the Hibagon, which is this ape-like creature that’s supposed to haunt the mountains, as being very unlikely, all the way to the tsuchinoko, which are the small, normal-sized snakes that seem to be vipers and [are] venomous. I think that’s much more possible. Some of those stories seem to be much more realistic—good eyewitness accounts, officials interested in them and organizing hunts, and even some old drawings. There’s the possibility that in the 17th century, there may actually have been some of them captured or put in scientific journals in Japan.”

The purism of science rejects much of the available evidence for unusual phenomena like this simply because it comes from scientifically “impure” sources like non-Western tradition and folklore, or eyewitness reports from ordinary people. As a result, these phenomena are not studied or taken seriously, which, in turn, reduces the possibility of scientific proof being produced.

“I think forteana has more to do with an attitude that distinguishes it both from mainstream science and from the other kinds of belief that surround, say, UFOs or Atlantis,” explains Sutton. “We simply remain curious—and encourage others to do so—bringing open minds to such evidence as there is, looking for more, and avoiding the exclusionism and rejection of the anomalous that often, unfortunately, characterizes mainstream science.”

But just as science can benefit from the open-minded approach of Forteans, the world of the unexplained can also benefit from the application of scientific methods. Because Japanese culture is less scientifically purist than the West, Japanese researchers have had fewer reservations about applying scientific techniques to the investigation of forteana, according to Coleman.

“The Japanese were one of the first people to go over to Loch Ness with submarines,” he points out. “That’s the other part of Japanese culture. They tend to really use technology. They were in the forefront of using technology to try to understand cryptozoology.”

A more astounding example of this is Sony. In the ’90s, the electronics giant financed a laboratory to investigate an area at which science typically turns its nose up: extrasensory perception. For eight years, Sony ran experiments on such ESP phenomena as remote viewing (the ability to perceive hidden images) and qi energy (the notion of “spiritual energy” in Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine).

The lab’s lead researcher, Yoichiro Sako set out the agenda at the 16th Annual Meeting of the Society for Scientific Exploration, held in Las Vegas in 1997.

“As the 21st century draws nearer, we can see that society’s materialistic values, fostered in many respects by modern science and technology, have become outdated and unworthy,” he told the conference. “It is clear that we have come to another turning point in history and science. What we require to meet the challenges of these unpredictable and confusing times is a new paradigm to guide a new age. I believe that the key to this new paradigm lies in the research of biological, mental, and spiritual phenomena such as qi and other psychic powers that have been overlooked by modern scientists.”

Despite promising results, the lab was reportedly closed down in 1998, following the death of Masaru Ibuka, one of Sony’s founders and its main supporter within the company. Naturally, if news spread that Sony was taking an interest in something considered a pseudoscience, its reputation for scientific excellence—and also its share price—might have suffered.

While the Fortean approach can be effective in producing fresh insights and revealing new knowledge, its successes are usually co-opted by science, leaving behind only the more marginal and outlandish phenomena that give it its oddball image.

A case in point is the giant squid. For many years this was a subject of myth and ridicule but, in 2004, an 8m-long specimen was finally photographed in its natural habitat off the coast of Japan by two Japanese researchers, Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori. At this point, the giant squid suddenly left the realm of forteana and became a fully signed up property of the scientific community.

While some of Japan’s mysterious phenomena may make this transition, the limitations of science mean that many more will continue to exist in the shadow world of our knowledge and on the fringes of our mental maps, creating the uneasy sense that, at least in Japan, “Here be monsters.”