A tiny rural community in northeastern Japan known for numerous UFO sightings is promoting itself as a "home to aliens" in a bid to revitalize its local economy and put itself on the intergalactic map.
By displaying its many pieces of UFO paraphernalia and holding events that appeal to enthusiasts, Iinomachi, once prosperous through silk production and weaving industries, hopes to build a new future by drawing visitors with a passion for the extraterrestrial.
Residents believe they live in a UFO hot spot and speak of repeated appearances of unknown luminous flying objects over the past four decades near the conical 462-meter-high Senganmori mountain.
Recent headlines about airborne objects with unclear origins, including a suspected Chinese spy balloon, have created geopolitical tensions, but a Fukushima municipal government official said their focus is considering possible extraterrestrial life from a more "romantic" viewpoint.
The area, formerly categorized as the town of Iino and integrated into the city of Fukushima in 2008, has a dwindling population of some 5,000 people. Senganmori, which the locals speculate is a possible ancient pyramid due to its shape and the large rock formations in its surrounds, dominates the scenery.
Visitors to Iinomachi cannot avoid having close encounters with extraterrestrial life everywhere, including UFO-shaped streetlights, bus stops, flags and even an alien statue.
The "UFO Fureaikan" museum opened halfway up the mountain in 1992 to display around 3,000 books, photos and other resources related to aliens and UFOs, some of them donated by the famous late UFO researcher Kinichi Arai. Around 30,000 people from in and out of the prefecture visit annually.
A UFO festival, in which participants dressed in alien costumes to take part in a parade and contest, was held for the first time last year to mark the museum's 30th anniversary.
The population of the former town peaked at approximately 9,500 in 1955 but has since almost halved. Those who remain, however, believe the future can be bright.
In 2021, the International UFO Lab, which collects and disseminates UFO sighting reports to its members around the world, was established in Iinomachi on June 24, which is also designated as World UFO Day. The date commemorates the first reported UFO sighting by U.S. civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold in the state of Washington in 1947.
Any UFO believer can become a member of the organization by paying a 10,000 yen ($74) one-year membership fee. Elite members, those who sign on for three years at 20,000 yen or 30,000 yen, are entitled to special T-shirts and locally brewed sake, and all members can attend UFO-related events.
The group said global interest in UFOs made a resurgence after the U.S. Department of Defense in 2020 released video footage of unidentified aerial phenomena captured in 2004 and 2015.
In 2021, the U.S. government released a preliminary assessment on UFOs, focusing on more than 140 reports collected since 2004 from military pilots and other sources. But it failed to offer concrete explanations for most sightings.
Tetsu Konno, 62, a now-retired employee of a major chemicals manufacturer, joined the International UFO Lab as a researcher in December, hoping to utilize his experience in sales and marketing for the group in his home city of Fukushima.
After being selected by the municipal government to help revitalize the district, he said a temporary goodbye to his family in Osaka Prefecture, where he had lived for more than 30 years.
"When I heard from residents that they had seen bright lights while climbing Senganmori mountain, it made me want to believe in UFOs," Konno said. "I'd like to see one during my three-year stint."
Konno said he also hopes their efforts to use UFOs as a community resource will breathe life back into the entire area. The goal is to get visitors to the museum and to continue their journey into the small community which features an old townscape and shopping street around four kilometers away.
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