How a baseless myth about Japanese tourists and the northern lights was born — and still persists

ANALYSIS: There's no evidence Japanese tourists visit the Arctic to conceive a lucky child. That hasn't stopped the story from spreading across the region.

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Northern lights over Chena Hot Springs in Interior Alaska, which may be the birthplace of a persistent myth about Japanese tourist and the Aurora Borealis. (Gary Barone / NOAA)

Whether you’ve seen the northern lights for a thousand nights or are just witnessing them for the first time, there is something magical about the pulsating flashes and ghostlike curtains soaring above the earth.

Visitors from all over the world travel to the Arctic for the chance to see this celestial show, which is no less magnificent if you are told it is created by the collision of charged particles from the sun and atoms in the upper atmosphere.

If the science of the aurora has become better understood in recent decades, there are elements about its impact on humans that remain cloaked in mystery or ignorance.

In the latter category, I’d include the persistent claim made over the past quarter-century that Japanese tourists travel to the Arctic not for the obvious reason — to observe one of nature’s wonders — but because ancient Japanese mythology holds that children conceived under the northern lights will be good looking and smart.

“According to Japanese mythology, a child conceived under the Aurora will be specially blessed, or a consummated marriage will be particularly fulfilling,” USA Today reported in 2013.

A Toronto Star reporter who traveled to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in 1999, said of Japanese visitors that “some locals insist the pilgrimage is more carnal than astronomical.”

He quoted an unidentified young man as the source of that wisdom, a guy who had a friend who “claimed to have happened upon some passionate Japanese tourists last winter.”

If you try to find any information about the alleged myth in the literature of folklore or religion, the results will be “tediously disappointing,” Stein Mathisen, a faculty member in the Department of Tourism and Northern Studies at the University of Tromsø, wrote in a 2017 research paper.

Alaska physicist Syun-Ichi Akasofu, one of the world’s leading authorities on the aurora, has long said to anyone who would listen that the northern lights are not visible in his homeland and there are no myths or legends about them.

There are people in northern communities with fertile imaginations, however.

The bogus creation story continues to be propagated in Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Norway and beyond, confirming the wisdom of the 19th century Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon: “A lie travels round the world, while Truth is putting on her boots.”

Spurgeon’s quote is often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain or Winston Churchill, a reminder that once a fable is set in motion it is impossible to stop.

The truth is that nearly 30 years ago, a Japanese TV crew traveled to the Arctic and broadcasted startling images of the northern lights in Japan for two weeks, which helped build interest in one of the world’s most spectacular phenomenon. The trend of traveling to see the winter lights grew over the years and, with the expansion of better flight connections, that made the journey much easier.

The Japanese do have a tradition of treasuring the wonders of nature, especially those aspects of the natural world that can’t be found in Japan. That’s the lure of the northern lights.

As to the conception fable, that is a media myth, amplified by televised fiction, tourism promoters, travel books, and newspaper and magazine writers.

Anyone writing about this can find many accounts claiming that there is a myth or a legend, which is all the justification needed to repeat the false story and give it wider circulation.

The whole thing may have started in 1989, when the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner quoted a former manager of Chena Hot Springs, 60 miles from Fairbanks, as saying that Japanese honeymooners believed that northern lights would bring good luck.

It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to expand on that claim. The fable received its most important boost from Alaska Magazine, of all places, in November 1991. The magazine quoted another former Chena Hot Springs manager as saying that when the northern lights appear, Japanese couples would go back into their hotel rooms and “all you hear is the sound of slamming doors. Twenty minutes later they’re back outside for another dose of the aurora.”

A writer for “Northern Exposure,” a 1990s TV comedy about Alaska, was taken by the Alaska Magazine account and made up a story about it for an episode broadcast nationally in 1992.

In that show, visiting Japanese couples in a small Alaska town are show rushing to their hotel rooms as soon as the northern lights appear.

One of the Alaska characters said he applauded the Japanese tourists “because they traveled all this way and paid you boys top dollar to procreate under our northern skies and they did it just to improve the next generation. Those people have vision.”

TV writer Jeff Vlaming said later he was flabbergasted that his vision helped spread the myth.

I wonder sometimes if the broadcast of reruns of that episode of “Northern Exposure” gave people in Japan a faulty idea about their own history, but the show has pretty much faded from the popular imagination.

The creation story also got a major boost from a March 1, 1992, report in the New York Times, quoting the Alaska tourism director as saying that the lights were a big draw for Japanese honeymooners.

“Many Japanese believe that if you consummate your marriage under the northern lights, you can expect a long and fruitful life,” an Anchorage tour operator told the Times.

The rumor spread because journalists and freelance writers heard it from so-called experts in Alaska and elsewhere, although there have been more reports identifying it as bogus.

In 1997, students in Laura Milner’s international tourism class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks surveyed Japanese visitors and “found no collaborating evidence to substantiate the aurora rumor.”

When Japanese visitors come to Fairbanks, they do not spend their nights indoors hoping for a gifted child. If the lights are out, they will be up and about, taking in the sights.

Everyone should be so lucky.