The Ghosts Who Hailed Taxis
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
In post-tsunami Japan, some taxi drivers reported spooky passengers.
The cab driver used to enjoy his job on summer evenings. Driving through the winding streets of Ishinomaki, he would often pass the port where white sailboats bobbed on the water and turned from blue to silver in the moonlight. In summer, his passengers were also more pleasant — giddy with the arrival of warm weather. But the summer of 2011 was different in the idyllic Japanese coastal town. The streets once alive with people were now empty and dark. The homes, businesses, schools and hospitals that the driver passed every day on his route had disappeared, flattened and scattered throughout the landscape by the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that ravaged Japan in March of that year. So the driver was surprised when, while driving through a particularly hard-hit area, he saw a young woman hailing him.
As he pulled over, he noticed that she wore a heavy winter coat in spite of the balmy summer heat and her hair looked wet, even though it hadn’t rained in days. When she got in the cab, she asked to be taken to the city’s Minamihama district, which surprised the driver. “That area is almost empty,” he said as he turned on the meter. “Are you sure?” The back seat was silent for a moment. Then, in a trembling voice, the young woman said, “Have I died?” Frightened, the cab driver turned around to find the back seat empty — the woman had vanished.
Though it may sound like nothing more than a ghost story, this tale was recorded by Yuka Kudo, a graduate student in sociology at Tohoku Gakuin University. In 2016, Kudo traveled to Ishinomaki, one of the cities most devastated by the tsunami, with 3,097 deaths and 2,770 missing, every weekend to interview cab drivers for her thesis. With the city decimated and the vast majority of its population relocated, the city’s remaining cab drivers were left making their lonely rounds among the rubble of nearly 50,000 destroyed buildings. Each time Yuka entered a taxi, she would ask, “Did you have any unusual experiences after the disaster?” Most of the 100 cabbies she interviewed ignored her, some got angry, but seven told eerily similar stories of phantom fares who disappeared during the journey.
Another driver told Yuka of a lost-looking man in his twenties whom he picked up and who kept pointing forward when asked where he wanted to be taken. After having been asked several times for an address, the passenger simply stated, “Hiyoriyama,” the mountain located not far from Ishinomaki. When they arrived at the summit of Hiyoriyama, the driver turned around to find that the strange young man had vanished.
Japanese culture has a deeply embedded and specific relationship with ghosts, or yūrei. Based on Shinto tenets of ancestor worship, Japanese ghost folklore often features spirits with unfinished business or who have not been laid to rest properly. In Shinto tradition, a person’s spirit is cared for after death by its family, who must provide a proper funeral, pray at their grave and return for visits to ensure a peaceful passage into the afterlife. If said measures are not taken, the spirit will wander the earthly plane searching for a home they can no longer reach or attempting to exact revenge. These ancient stories are still very much a part of Japanese culture today, as evidenced in films such as Ringu and Ju-On.
During the 2011 tsunami, nearly 16,000 people violently and suddenly lost their lives, and many bodies were never recovered for burial. By traditional reckoning, that meant Japan would have been inundated with wandering ghosts — and, unsurprisingly, ghost sightings in Japan skyrocketed after the disaster, extending far beyond the phantom passengers in Ishinomaki.
According to Richard Lloyd Parry’s book Ghosts of the Tsunami, some people reported seeing loved ones and neighbors, others complained of strange demonic creatures, and still others claimed to be possessed, sometimes by multiple spirits of tsunami victims. One middle-aged man in the town of Kurihara hated to go out in the rain because he could see the eyes of the dead staring up out of puddles. A fire station in Tagajō incessantly received calls to houses that had been destroyed — calls that only stopped after the firemen drove to the ruins and prayed for their deceased residents. The ghost of an old woman was said to appear in the living rooms of temporary homes at a refugee community in Onagawa and sit down for a cup of tea. The cushion she sat on was always wet with seawater when she left.
Beyond the mythology of yūrei, a scientific explanation for mass ghost sightings after the tsunami can be found in the concepts of collective grief and trauma. “Collective trauma creates collective reactions seeking healing, a sense of safety and hope,” explains Dr. Charles R. Figley, chair in disaster mental health at the School of Social Work at Tulane University. “It is not uncommon for fellow survivors of catastrophic loss and dislocation to have common reactions, be they paranormal sightings, sounds or smells.” He says the tendency toward collective memory even extends to experiences that seem supernatural. “Ghosts, for some, are more tolerable than the void created by death,” he says.
But there is one aspect of the Ishinomaki phantom passenger stories that cannot be explained away by psychology: the drivers’ logs. Many of the cabbies Yuka Kudo interviewed recorded their strange experiences with ghostly passengers in their logbooks. The driver who told the story of the young man who disappeared at Hiyoriyama even showed Kudo his log of the unpaid fare to the mountain. At the very least, the cabbies’ records prove that they believed a passenger was with them: Could they really all have been imagining things?