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2016, January 22: Hitchhiking Ghosts of Ishinomaki

In 2014, a student from the Tohoku Gakuin University interviewed a number of taxi drivers in the town of Ishinomaki, in the Miyagi Prefecture of Japan, regarding any unusual experiences they may have had after the area was devastated by a tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Yuka Kudo
Yuka Kudo, ca. December 2015 [Picture source here]

Yuka Kudo, who majored in sociology, presented her results the following year in her senior thesis. She asked the question of 100 different taxi drivers while they were waiting for fares. Most ignored her; some became angry; but seven of the drivers had some very unusual experiences they wanted to share.

        The most noted account from her paper regarded a driver in his 50's who picked up a fare in the early summer of 2011. The driver stopped at the Ishinomaki Station to let a woman in her 30's -- who was wearing a winter coat -- climb into back of the cab. She asked to be driven to the Minamihama district of the city; he pointed out that the area was almost empty, and asked if she was sure she wanted to go there. She responded in a shivering voice... "have I died?" The unusual question made the driver turn to look at her, but the woman had vanished.

         Another driver stated they had a younger man, who looked to be in his 20's, get in their cab. The driver looked up at the young man in the rear view mirror to see he was just pointing forward. After asking the passenger to name a destination several times, the young man finally replied with "Hiyoriyama," the name of a local mountain, and the driver headed out... but when the cab arrived at the mountain, the passenger was no longer in the vehicle.

        All seven clearly thought they had picked up human passengers as shown by one fact: they had all started their meters. Once a taxi meter is started, the time it represents must be payed for... if not by a passenger, then by a debit from the driver's paycheck. For this reason, the taxi drivers were not likely to fake these stories, especially since none of them had sought attention for the accounts until Kudo interviewed them.

        Kudo noted that all seven drivers described younger looking passengers, and so speculated that they were all likely victims of the tsunami. Kudo also supposed that when a young person dies their ghost is more likely to "feel strongly chagrined" by the fact, and therefore more likely to need to communicate this frustration. She felt they were using the taxi as a medium for this communication. Kudo was impressed that the drivers were not afraid of the strange passengers; they instead seemed to hold their experiences with reverence. Some of the drivers had also lost friends and family in the tsunami, so seemed sympathetic to their unusual passengers.

        I'd also note that there does not appear to be a good reason for other taxi drivers to be angry with Kudo for asking about unusual experiences, unless they also encountered something but did not wish to discuss it; so it's possible more than just seven drivers ran into ghostly passengers in the wake of the disaster.

High Strangeness

Yuka Kudo is essentially presenting encounters that mirror an extremely often repeated urban legend titled by Folklorists as "The Phantom Hitchhiker." Urban legends are usually told as a form of entertainment, or as a true -- but utterly unconfirmable -- experience of a friend of a friend. In the legend of the Phantom Hitchhiker there is, generally, an unknown person being picked up for a ride, stating where they wish to go, and afterwards vanishing mysteriously from the vehicle. The legends then continue usually by stating the person who offered the ride goes to the location indicated by the vanished passenger, and discovers proof that the person they picked up was in fact a ghost trying to return home.

        But what Kudo is describing are actual reported events; events in which there is no finishing confirmation of the passenger's ghostly state (excepting for the woman asking if she had died).

        If we suppose that ghostly hitchhikers do exist and do occasionally get picked up, it would make sense that the driver in such an event would not ever know enough to find out who their vanishing passenger was; and that in re-tellings later, such an encounter might have an ending attached that explained who the passenger was to make the tale a better story. So, were the encounters of the Ishinomaki taxi drivers just hallucinations based on the old legend? Or did they actually experience the sort of encounter that created the legends in the first place?

        And that is the difficulty of the situation. The taxi drivers of Ishinomaki are not the only people to report such an encounter, by the way; in 1979, a man in Britain named Roy Fulton also picked up an odd passenger... follow the 'See Also' link to find out more.