On 11th March 2011, a tsunami hit Japan that devastated the landscape, changing it forever. In minutes the coastline was submerged under water, buildings collapsed, homes were swept away, and trees uprooted. The impact wasn’t only to the land, many lost their lives and the official death toll is around 15,000 people despite the earthquake only lasting six minutes. The following months were spent picking up the pieces and trying to start again. One aspect of this was locating people who may not have survived, or may have ended up miles from where they were when the tsunami first hit. Ten years on the missing person list still has over 2,000 names on it.
In the months afterwards, taxi drivers in the area started to report strange occurrences: disappearing passengers. They would pick up passenger as normal who, more often than not, would ask to be taken to locations that had been destroyed or damaged in the tsunami. At some point during the journey the passenger would simply disappear leaving the driver confused and alone. It was noted that often the passengers’ clothing were either inappropriate for the weather, e.g. big coats when it was warm, or soaking wet.
The taxi drivers believe them to be genuine passengers, and start the meter running, unfortunately results in a lost fare. Some believe they are taking lost spirits home and do so willingly having experienced loss first-hand; one said “If I encounter a ghost again, I will accept it as my passenger.” (mamamia.com). Drivers aren’t the only people to report ghost sightings, toys belonging to dead children would seemingly turn on by themselves or “a dead woman would visit old friends in their temporary housing and sit down for a cup of tea, leaving dampness on the cushion” (theguardian.com). Fire stations also received calls of distress and, upon arriving at the address given, found it to have been destroyed in the tsunami. They would pray for those lost, and return to the station.
Non-supernatural explanations from psychiatrist Keizo Hara and sociology student Yuka Kudo who based her thesis on the subject, suggest these ghost encounters could be PTSD from the tsunami, coping mechanisms or grief over the immense loss.
Academics began calling the phenomenon ‘the ghost problem’. A publisher in Masashi Hijikata living in Tohoku – an area drenched in folklore – decided to start kaidankai to allow people to tell their stories and support one another. These gatherings proved very therapeutic and survivors were able to explore their experiences with the supernatural in an open and safe space. Similarly, Reverend Taio Kaneta set up the Café de Monku, travelling and spontaneous meetings with tea and cake to give people an opportunity to discuss their emotions and experiences. Survivors were naturally dealing with very practical issues stemming from the tsunami, such as the destruction of their homes and jobs, but “numerous people also told stories of unexpected encounters with the deceased.” (medium.com)
Traditionally in Japan, when someone dies, there are certain traditions that take place surrounding the funeral which are respectful of the deceased but also allow those left behind their opportunity to say goodbye. These often involve the burning of incense and praying after which the body will be cremated. There is little public grieving, this process allowing for the emotions to be processed. Because of the chaos left behind after the tsunami, and just trying to keep everyone who was still alive that way, the traditional funeral services weren’t able to proceed, instead mass graves were dug to help prevent the spread of infection and illness. It was a necessity of the situation, but meant people were unable to have their proper goodbye with their loved ones which potentially compounded the trauma and distress they were already suffering.
This isn’t the only instance of this phenomenon; after hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, taxi drivers reported similar occurrences of disappearing passengers. Although, New Orleans is known as America’s most haunted city, so perhaps this isn’t restricted to post-disaster.