As most of you will remember, Japan was struck by a massive magnitude-9 earthquake in March of 2011. The offshore originating earthquake caused a vicious tsunami to crash upon the eastern coast of Japan's Tohoku Region.
As of April 2015, 15,891 deaths were confirmed, 2,500 are still listed as missing, and reportedly about 500,00 were left homeless. Because of the tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant underwent a "level-7 nuclear meltdown," leaving hundreds in the area sick or injured.
For the people of Tohoku's coastal region, the tsunami is a painful reality that haunts them everyday. As I've mentioned before in regards to "dark tourism", the people living in the areas most destroyed by the tsunami ask that people just show "a little bit of empathy" toward them — remember that it was actual human lives that were lost.
Yet, part of Japan's recovery from the tsunami seems to be linked to the spirits of those who were lost. Whether it is the ghosts of those who were snatched from life too soon, or how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is exhibiting itself, many have reported seeing the spirits of those claimed by the tsunami.
As a society that readily embraces the technological advances of the present as well as the spiritual gravity of the past, it may not be so farfetched to think that people are in some way sensitive to the souls, energy — call it what you will — that manifest in the aftermath of such a tragedy.
In areas heavily struck by the disaster, more and more survivors admit to seeing ghosts of the deceased returning to the places they'd frequented in life. Shops and customers alike report encounters with spirits of the dead come back to do what they did so casually before the disaster. In residential neighborhoods, people report seeing apparitions returning to the site of what was once their home.
Some areas reported "phantom queues" of shoppers lined up outside supermarkets that "are now only rubble."
Others, in the badly hit Ishinomaki area, claim that crowds of phantom people can be seen reliving their "last, fruitless minutes" over and over again as they run from the waves.
While these images are disturbing, experts say that this "is part of the healing process." According to cultural anthropologist Takeo Funabiki via the Sidney Morning Herald:
"Human beings find it very difficult to accept death, whether they are inclined by nature to superstition or are very scientifically minded,'' he says. ''A sudden or abnormal death, anything other than someone dying in bed of old age, is particularly difficult for people to comprehend.
''When there are things that many people find difficult to accept, they can find expression in the form of rumours or rituals for the dead, amongst other things. The point is that it takes the shape of something that you can share with other people in your society."
"Exorcists" are also helping people heal from the tsunami. I should note that by "exorcists," I don't so much mean a Bible-wielding individual who forcefully drives out a demon from its victim. When dealing with the survivors, an exorcist is more likely a Buddhist or Shinto priest, maybe a spiritually attuned individual, who offers a person struggling with paranormal activity a way through the residual pain, fear, and yes, ghostly manifestations of the tsunami.
In his article, "Ghosts of the Tsunami" for the London Review of Books, author Richard Lloyd Parry shares numerous accounts of aid and exorcism from Taio Kaneda, a Buddhist priest serving the affected region.
One account that Kaneda tells to Parry is about a man Kaneda calls "Takeshi Ono" (the man did not want his real name used, because he was "ashamed of what had happened").
A friendly, innocent man that Kaneda describes as like Mr. Bean in demeanor, Ono lived in Kurihara, a town 30 miles inland from the tsunami ravaged Tohoku coast.
When the tsunami hit, Ono's life was largely unaffected. Ten days after the disaster, Ono and his family decided to take something of a day trip over to see what the tsunami had done.
As he drove closer and closer to the affected region, Ono thought life looked familiar, not too damaged. But as they neared the coast the full impact of the tsunami's destruction became evident. It was unreal to Ono, "absurd."
Leveled neighborhoods, rubble, entire forests lifted up and dropped all over the coast. Perhaps in some state of disbelief, Ono decided to take a walk along the beach with an ice cream snack. From Parry's telling, the naive Ono meant no harm by his visit, but he also lacked respect.
And he paid for it.
Upon returning home Ono was plagued by bizarre behavior for three days. The first night it started with him having the uncontrollable need to call everyone he knew to ask, "Hi, how are you?"
According to his wife and mother (and seemingly unbeknownst to Ono), he then took to writhing on the floor, licking the furniture, and growling, "You must die. You must die. Everyone must die. Everything must die and be lost." Ono then ran out into a field by their house, and rolled around in the mud shouting, "There, over there! They’re all over there – look!"
The next night Ono's odd behavior continued, when "he saw figures walking past the house: parents and children, a group of young friends, a grandfather and a child."
‘They were covered in mud,’ he said. ‘They were no more than twenty feet away, and they stared at me, but I wasn’t afraid. I just thought, “Why are they in those muddy things? Why don’t they change their clothes? Perhaps their washing machine’s broken.” They were like people I might have known once, or seen before somewhere. The scene was flickering, like a film. But I felt perfectly normal, and I thought that they were just ordinary people.’
The the third night Ono's behavior escalated when he "waved a knife" at his family and snarled, "Drop dead!.. Everyone else is dead, so die!"
When Ono finally went to see Kaneda, the priest took him into the temple and recited the Heart Sutra over him, splashing him with holy water. Ono, who had been dull and weary up until that moment, snapped out of it and felt a sense of "tranquility and release."
My head was light,’ he said. ‘In a moment, the thing that had been there had gone. I felt fine physically, but my nose was blocked, as if I’d come down with a heavy cold.
Kaneda then explained that Ono had been set up on by spirits of tsunami disaster because he "flippantly" visited the site. Said Kaneda to Ono:
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.
Ono learned his lesson and went home, with a runny nose — a nose running with unusual "bright pink jelly."
Though not all cases are like Ono's, Kaneda says that the area hit by the tsunami may have a bonafide "ghost problem." People haunted by loved ones, people dealing with gaki or mischievous ghosts who died "violently" or "in anger or anguish," those whose fears present in the form of unexplained phenomena — Kaneda is there for them all. With countless people reportedly suffering from ghost infestations it appears that Kaneda is more than an exorcist; he is a man ministering to anyone attempting to recover.
Of course not all ghosts are so easily reached.
Cab drivers in tsunami-effected areas have claimed that they pick up "ghost passengers" from time to time.
Yuka Kudo, a senior sociology major at Tohoku Gakuin University, has made the ghost passengers part of her graduation thesis. Traveling to Ishinomaki every week in her junior year, she asked over 100 cab drivers, "Did you have any unusual experiences after the disaster?"
Many wouldn't divulge stories, but seven shared experiences.
One cab driver picked up a woman near Ishinomaki Station. She asked him to take her to the Minamihama district. Knowing that the district was "almost empty," the driver asked the woman if that was okay. The woman then responded in a shivering voice, "Have I died?"
When the driver turned around to the back seat to respond to this odd question, the woman had vanished.
Another driver told Kudo that a 20-something-year-old man got into his taxi, and just pointed forward. When pressed for a destination, the passenger just said, "Hiyoriyama" (the name of a nearby mountain where the tsunami's destruction can best be viewed).
When the driver reached Hiyoriyama, "the man had disappeared".
Though it is hard to substantiate these claims, each cab driver can point to their log. When the ghost passenger got in, they started the meter. The fare then went unpaid. And though the drivers have to pay for the fare out of pocket, they hold no ill will or fear toward the ghosts, only "reverence".
Said one driver, "It is not strange to see a ghost (here). If I encounter a ghost again, I will accept it as my passenger."
Kudo's and Kaneda's work is more than just spooky stories. Each account reminds us that those who died in the earthquake and tsunami were people, not just numbers.
As Kudo tells The Asahi Shimbun:
Before interviewing taxi drivers, she had only thought of the victims as “thousands of people” who had died in the disaster.
“(Through the interviews,) I learned that the death of each victim carries importance,” she said. “I want to convey that (to other people).”