Tsunami Ghosts: Strange Hauntings in the Wake 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.

Devastation of the 2011 Japan tsunami

Devastation of the 2011 Japan tsunami

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.

Here among the rubble left behind by the grim disaster those left living picked through it all trying to slowly rebuild their lives while mourning the dead, and by all accounts it seems that these restless dead were still with them in a sense. Not so long after the quake and tsunami hit, there began to trickle in a variety of odd reports telling of encounters with the ghosts of those whose lives had been cut short in the tragedy. Witnesses spoke of seeing the phantoms of people lining up at abandoned supermarkets and shops that had been left in shambles, the ghosts of people lingering around places they had frequented in life, and specters skulking about the barren, jagged rubble that had once been their homes. There have also been terrifying visions of ghostly figures frantically running inland as if from the waves, only to dissipate into thin air as they flee. Many people claimed that they had been approached by people they had known in life but knew to be dead, who spoke to them briefly or asked for help before fading away right before their eyes. One elderly woman from Onagawa who had died in the disaster had the rather unsettling habit of showing up at a refugee camp for a casual cup of tea, with witnesses claiming that they hadn’t had the heart to tell her she was dead. She apparently would leave behind wet splotches of seawater. Some even complained of sinister presences sitting heavily upon their chests as they lie in bed at night.

Some of the creepiest reports have come from the affected region’s taxi drivers, who increasingly claimed that they were picking up the spirits of the dead. Such accounts were especially prevalent in the city of Ishinomaki, in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, which had been hit hard by the tsunami and lost an estimated 6,000 people to it, many of whose bodies have never been found. Here on these dark streets taxi drivers have even now claimed to have picked up spectral passengers. One driver described how he picked up a young woman a couple of months after the disaster who had wished to go from Ishinomaki Station to the Minamihama district, an area that had been thoroughly erased from existence by the tsunami. When the driver told the woman that there was nothing left there to drive to, she calmly asked him “Have I died?” before dematerializing.

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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.

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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?’

It was not long after his arrival in the disaster area that things began to take a turn for the strange for Ono. It began with a strong compulsion to call everyone he knew and ask if they were OK, after which he apparently had gone down onto all fours to begin licking furniture and the tatami mat floors while writhing around and snarling “You must die. You must die. Everyone must die. Everything must die and be lost.” Ono had then apparently run out into a field and began rolling about in the mud as he proclaimed: “There, over there! They’re all over there – look! I’m coming to you. I’m coming over to that side!” It had finally taken his own wife to drag him inside, where he continued to madly rant and writhe like an insane person until 5AM, before exclaiming that there was something on top of him and going quiet. The next morning, Ono’s distraught wife demanded a divorce and he claimed to have no memory of any of it. Yet, the oddness would continue. The following night, Ono claimed that he could see shadowy figures walking past the front of the house. Ono would later say:

They were covered in mud. 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.

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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.

The priest Kaneda reported having many other brushes with the unexplained concerning the spirits of the tsunami. He claimed that there were countless reports from startled individuals being haunted by ghosts in the area, some of which were reported even years after the actual disaster. In one instance, 2 and a half years after the tsunami had struck, Kaneda claimed that he was visited by a 25-year-old woman called “Rumiko.” The woman complained of “things entering her” and of having sudden nearly uncontrollable urges to kill herself. She said that she was being inhabited by spirits coming into her from “a place deep below.”

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Kaneda was able to ascertain that Rumiko was somehow sensitive to the dead and was being infested by various spirits, 25 of which were allegedly exorcized by the startled priest and many of which were ghosts of the tsunami. One of these turned out to be the spirit of a middle-aged man who wanted to know where his daughter Kaori was. He claimed that he had seen her by the sea during the earthquake and himself had been swept away by the relentless wave of the tsunami. This particular spirit was described as being very agitated and intense, and when Kaneda asked him where he was the ghost replied that he was at the bottom of the sea and that it was very cold there. When Kaneda instructed the spirit to come up towards the light, it is said to have replied:

But the light is so small. There are bodies all around me, and I can’t reach it. And who are you anyway? Who are you to lead me to the world of light?

After several hours of conversing with the stubborn ghost, it was finally convinced to leave this world behind and move on. Other ghosts alleged to have inhabited the poor Rumiko were a man who had committed suicide after learning that his two daughters had died in the tsunami, another who wanted to join his dead relatives but couldn’t find his way because everything had been washed away, an old man who wanted to communicate with his wife who had survived the disaster, and many others, including children. Rumiko also claimed that she was constantly surrounded by the spirits of barking dogs. In one case she was supposedly possessed by one of these dogs, scratching the floor and snarling like an animal. Eventually with Kaneda’s help Rumiko was reportedly able to exert some control over these intrusive entities, after which she moved away with her husband and wasn’t heard from again. Other similar exorcists stalked the region as well, including one 56-year-old woman named Kansho Aizawa, who said of the myriad ghosts haunting the battered landscape:

There are headless ghosts, and some missing hands or legs. Others are completely cut in half. People were killed in so many different ways during the disaster and they were left like that in limbo. So it takes a heavy toll on us, we see them as they were when they died.

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The cause of all of this paranormal strangeness depends largely on who you ask. For those who believe in such thing as restless ghosts these are what are often known of in Japan as the gaki, or “hungry ghosts,” which are believed to be the restless spirits of those who have died prematurely, often abruptly in anger or violence, and who like nothing more than to cause anguish and mischief for the living. For others the cause is more scientifically rational. One idea is that this is all caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with the ghosts being mental projections or hallucinations from the terror and stress that the witness has endured rather than any supernatural presence from the other side. Indeed there have been several studies that show that people in an intense grieving state or suffering from PTSD have a tendency to experience such hallucinations, but how does this explain supernatural activity that others who perhaps were not directly involved with the disaster have seen?

There can be no doubt that the total annihilation and almost biblical destruction left behind by the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami will remain indelibly embedded within the minds of the Japanese people and indeed people all over the world. The sheer horror and unbelievable, relentless death and destruction are not something that will be forgotten with time, and this is a land doomed to be eternally haunted by the hardships it has faced, no matter how much effort is put into paving over and rebuilding the damage. But does this haunting spread beyond the bounds of just the pain and misery that has been inflicted upon this place? Are there more than just the ghosts lurking in the memories of those who have survived and actual spirits of the tragically deceased that stalk this locale? Does the suffering and torment brought abut by such major disasters draw to them the ghosts of those torn away from us, and if so what do they want? Whether the ruins of the 2011 tsunami hold supernatural mysteries or not, it is chilling to look upon images of the utter devastation and wonder if these lost souls are out there amongst it, just as lost as those who wallow in grief about what it all means.