1,400 Years After A Strange Red Light Appeared Over Japan We May Know What It Was

by : Julia Banim on : 11 Apr 2020 17:15
1,400 Years After A Strange Red Light Appeared Over Japan We May Know What It WasNASA

Centuries ago, a strange red light appeared over Japan that left people perplexed, fascinated and inspired.

Described in the ancient Japanese text Nihon Shoki as a ‘red pheasant’, this light appeared on December 30, 620 CE, which left a lasting impression on many of those who witnessed it and influenced Japanese storytelling for years to come.


In Japanese folklore, pheasants are traditionally regarded to be messengers from heaven, and this bizarre vision was widely viewed as having come from the life beyond. Somewhat frighteningly for those living at the time, this light was not regarded to be a good omen at all.


Scientists have long been left scratching their heads over this phenomenon, which was described in the Nihon Shoki as being longer ‘than 1 jo (10 degrees)’ with a shape similar to ‘a pheasant tail’.

It’s long been assumed this strange sight was due to either an aurora or a comet, even though neither of these explanations seemed to quite fit the descriptions given at the time.


Auroras usually do not resemble pheasants’ tails, while comets don’t normally result in striking red light shows across the sky.

Without any photographs of what was seen on that day to draw from, it’s proven difficult to pin the source of this light down. However, it’s now believed we have the answer at long, long last.


In research published on March 31, 2020, in the Sokendai Review of Culture and Social Studies, academics detailed their search through historical annals to discover more contemporary descriptions of auroras over Japan.


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It was found that some were indeed similar in appearance to the ‘red pheasant’. Although auroras aren’t often seen as far south as Japan, researchers noted the spectacle could have been less unusual back in 620 CE.

Back then, the North Pole would have been in a different location, meaning the country would have been closer to the magnetic north than it is nowadays.

Ryuho Kataoka, a Department of Polar Science in the School of Multidisciplinary Sciences researcher at The Graduate University for Advanced Studies and the National Institute of Polar Research, has stated:

It is the oldest Japanese astronomical record of a ‘red sign’. It could be a red aurora produced during magnetic storms. However, convincing reasons have not been provided, although the description has been very famous among Japanese people for a long time.


Auroras are the result of charged Sun particles colliding with Earth’s atmosphere, creating various colours of light – including red – as they interact with different elements.

Usually this natural marvel can only be spotted in the Arctic and Antarctic circles, which are located approximately 66.5 degrees north and south of the Earth’s equator. However – on occasion – auroras can actually be observed in other, non-polar regions.

With the possibility of a comet passing by at this time being very low, authors of the study have concluded the red pheasant tail – which has gone on to inspire so many Japanese writers – was in fact the result of a beautiful aurora.


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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

Topics: News, Japan


Sokendai Review of Cultural and Social Studies
  1. Sokendai Review of Cultural and Social Studies

    Pheasant Tail: Consideration of the Shape of the Red Sign in the Nihon-Shoki