Tsunami Ghosts: Hauntings of Japan’s Big Disaster
Horrific disasters have long proven to draw to themselves stories of the eternally restless souls of the tragically killed. It seems that such a massive number of deaths dealt within the blink of an eye and the torment that roils about such events imbue these areas with a dark presence that settles in amongst the rubble of what once was. Indeed some of the most intensely haunted spots on earth lie firmly upon the locations of terrific displays of nature’s wrath, warfare, or mass carnage. One area of Japan has not gone unscathed by such grim stories, and in the aftermath of one of history’s greatest disasters, out of the twisted wreckage left behind have spawned countless bizarre stories of wandering dead souls, spooky hauntings, and supernatural horror.
In March of 2011, tragedy struck Japan. A massive magnitude-9 earthquake tore through, generating a devastating tsunami that battered the coastal Tohoku region of the country’s eastern coast and left death and destruction in its wake. As if the potent quake and resulting wave weren’t bad enough, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was so badly damaged that it went into a nuclear meltdown that was to be one of the worst in history, poisoning the environment, it’s animals, it’s people, and causing lasting ripples that reverberate to this day. The event was especially frightening to this writer, as I live in Japan and was here at the time, although I was safely out of harm’s way in Tokyo as the breathtaking horrors of the disaster flashed across the TV screen. It felt like a surreal nightmare being viewed through the lens of sleep, as it it couldn’t possibly be happening, but it was.
On the ground in the affected region things were much more real, although many of these people perhaps still thought of it all as some sort of bad dream from which they might wake. Thousands upon thousands of people dead and many more injured or left homeless, the sound of screaming and crying the background score to all of the carnage. The landscape had become a wasteland of broken debris, carcasses, smashed buildings, and shattered dreams, a shadowy skeleton of what it had once been. The ruthless tsunami had tossed cars, trees and houses about as if mere playthings, upending and dashing them haphazardly about the scene, with trees cast far inland or cars and boats dashed upon the tops of tall, destroyed buildings; a splendid illustration of nature’s terrible power. Those structures that had been left standing had only been slightly luckier, being gutted and defaced by the devastation so as to be left uninhabitable ruins only vaguely reminiscent of what they had once been, and all of it withering under the specter of leaking radiation from the crippled nuclear plant. It looked like an absolute war zone, as if it had been bombed into oblivion, and where once there had been thriving, vibrant community now lay only haunting, broken reminders of its past.
Many other drivers in the area reported similar experiences of picking up passengers, only to have them vanish during the drive, and in every one of these cases the drivers had been convinced they were carrying a living, breathing person. In one case a passenger gave specific instructions to go to an address which turned out to be a leveled house, but when the driver turned around the passenger was mysteriously gone. Interestingly, none of them reported having felt any sense of fear at the time, most likely because they were convinced they were transporting real people, and in all cases the phantoms were reported as being quite young. The phenomenon of phantom taxi passengers in Ishinomaki was studied by researcher Yuka Kudo, a senior at Tohoku Gakuin University majoring in sociology, who as part of her graduation thesis interviewed 100 taxi drivers about any unusual experiences they had had in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster, 7 of which came forth with their ghostly encounters, showing their logs where they had started the meter for a passenger only for it to become an unpaid fare when the ghost had vanished. One of the drivers said “It is not strange to see a ghost here. If I encounter a ghost again, I will accept it as my passenger.”
Other ghostly tales plagued the area for some time. Offices, homes, and shops were said to be haunted and frequented by the dead. Emergency services, who were in overdrive trying to provide relief to the survivors, reported being called to locations that had been long destroyed and abandoned, with no one even sure of how anyone could have made a call from the spot in the first place. People all over the area frequently complained of having ghosts cause mischief in their homes or suddenly appear to startle or frighten.
Even more frightening are accounts of what can only be called spiritual possessions by the bitter, restless dead, to the point that Buddhist and Shinto priests serving as exorcists began to come to the area to help frightened residents deal with these spooky manifestations. In a fascinating article by author Richard Lloyd Parry for the London Review of Books, entitled Ghosts of the Tsunami, there are several such tales of the supernatural surrounding the disaster, as relayed to him by a self-proclaimed Buddhist exorcist by the name of Taio Kaneda, who ended up traveling the coast with a group of other priests in the aftermath of the tragedy to deal with such disturbances. One of these accounts concerns a local builder referred to by Kaneda as “Takeshi Ono,” a fake name used because the witness felt ashamed, and it is a creepy story to be sure.
The so-called Mr. Ono’s story begins in his home town of Kurihara, which lies about 30 miles inland from where the ferocious tsunami hit. At the time of the disaster itself, Ono was fortunate enough to not have been hard hit by it, although the quake had indeed been frightening, viewing it mostly as many did, on the news. Intrigued by the horrific display of nature’s might playing out on screen so close to where he lived, he and his family decided to take a trip over to the disaster area 10 days later to see just how bad things were there. As they drew closer and closer to the tsunami ravaged coast, the scenery abruptly changed from the familiar to the otherworldly, as fields and forests gave way to swaths of destruction and swarming emergency vehicles. Ono himself was taken aback by the chaotic destruction and mayhem, and recalls:
I saw the rubble, I saw the sea. I saw buildings damaged by the tsunami. It wasn’t just the things themselves, but the atmosphere. It was a place I used to go so often. It was such a shock to see it. And all the police and soldiers there. It’s difficult to describe. It felt dangerous. My first feeling was that this is terrible. My next thought was: ‘Is it real?’
In the following days Ono would go through spells of crippling lethargy punctuated by bouts of intense energy, which deeply disturbed those around him. Even more disturbing were his sudden violent outbursts, during which he would wave a knife at his family and blurt out “Drop dead! Everyone else is dead, so die!” This was perhaps the last straw, and Ono was brought to Kaneda’s temple, where the priest immediately knew just by looking at the broken man that something was deeply wrong with him. After an intense session of prayers and rituals, Ono claimed that whatever presence had been lurking within him had suddenly vacated his body and that he was free. Further discussion with the priest illuminated what had caused the whole paranormal incident in the first place. Kaneda explained:
Ono told me that he’d walked along the beach in that devastated area, eating an ice cream. He even put up a sign in the car in the windscreen saying ‘disaster relief’, so that no one would stop him. He went there flippantly, without giving it any thought at all. I told him: “You fool. If you go to a place where many people have died, you must go with a feeling of respect. That’s common sense. You have suffered a kind of punishment for what you did. Something got hold of you, perhaps the dead who cannot accept yet that they are dead. They have been trying to express their regret and their resentment through you.