Japanese make space for UFOs

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Unidentified flying objects may not appear in Japan's official trade statistics, but they are big business in the town of Hakui, population 28,000, on the west coast some 200 miles (320km) from Tokyo. The town council has somehow persuaded the central government to pay for the establishment of the world's largest UFO institute in Hakui, on the grounds that it will help local economic development.

The UFO centre is to be built in the shape of a flying saucer and will contain a library in Japanese and English on UFOs and other related phenomena from outer space. It is the brainchild of Josen Takano, who has been obsessed with extra-terrestrials since his student days. Mr Takano has already established the UFO Lovers political party, and ran - unsuccessfully - in a national election in 1992 on a platform of building a UFO landing strip outside Hakui.

At the time people laughed at him. But in Hakui, Mr Takano is treated as something of a visionary, and his enthusiasm for UFOs is widely shared by the townspeople. Models of spaceships adorn roofs in the town, the shops sell UFO souvenirs, and restaurants even offer UFO noodles, with the contents of the bowl arranged to resemble a flying saucer.

'I have never seen a UFO myself,' says Mr Takano, who works in the town hall's planning section. 'But my real dream is to get on board a UFO.' For the past 10 years Mr Takano has been collecting books and other documents from all over the world on UFOs. He is most proud of a report by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation on the recovery in 1950 of three bodies of suspected aliens, 3ft tall, along with parts of their spacecraft, from a crash site close to the Mexican border.

'We plan to deal with people who have encountered UFOs, but who are just ignored or treated as crazy by others. We should not leave the whole matter unsolved any longer,' says Mr Takano, who claims to have found local chronicles going back 500 years which refer to 'flying objects'.

In 1990, Mr Takano organised the 'International Symposium on UFOs and the Universe', for which he obtained funding from Japan's otherwise austere Ministry of International Trade and Industry. He also drew several astronauts from the US and the former Soviet Union. The institute opens in 1996. Parking tickets are free for any spacecraft within two light years' travelling distance.