Over the summer, I enjoyed a three-month Sabbatical away from my job as a pastor. For those not familiar with the concept of a Sabbatical, once every seven years, a pastor is given an extended period of rest. Anybody who’s in a caring profession—pastors, nurses, doctors, counselors, social workers, teachers—needs time to recharge so they don’t burn out.
I was supposed to get my Sabbatical in 2020, but the pandemic prevented it from happening. Thankfully, two years later we packed our bags and moved to the United Kingdom and Europe for two months. We were based out of London and took excursions to France, Hungary, Italy and Spain. For our family, this was the trip of a lifetime. We felt so fortunate to be able to expose our kids to other countries and cultures. We enjoyed every minute of our time away and created indelible memories that I plan to share in a post in the coming months.
That said, another aspect of my time away from the church was having the opportunity to focus on writing my new book Restorative Beauty. If you’re not familiar with the concept behind this book, you can read the introduction here, but it’s a follow-up to Restorative Faith. Whereas Restorative Faith outlined a new approach to Christianity for those with rationalist sentiments, Restorative Beauty discusses a new approach to spirituality for a 21st century mindset.
Prior to the Sabbatical, I had completed six chapters. My goal over the summer was to finish the remaining four chapters. Every day, I would take a couple of hours to focus on writing. Whereas some people write very quickly and then spend a lot of time editing, I tend to edit as I write. In other words, writing is a very laborious process for me. I can spend as much as 20 minutes crafting a single sentence until I feel the composition is exactly as I want it to be.
Despite my sloth-like writing ability, I’m happy to report that I was successful in my endeavor. I managed to finish the first draft of the book, which now must go through several major revisions. During this process, there are parts of the book that are edited down or removed altogether. One section of the book that will likely be on the chopping block is the introductory section to the chapter on rituals. Personally, I love the story in this section, but whether or not it makes the final cut will come down to the feedback I receive from readers and editors.
Therefore, since this section entitled Ghost Stories might not ever see the light of day in the final manuscript, I wanted to offer it on the blog. I came across this story during my research and I thought it was a beautiful way to introduce the concept of rituals and why they are so important to us as humans. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I also hope this excerpt generates some interest about the forthcoming book as there are lots of amazing stories like this one in Restorative Beauty.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake took place along the fault line where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates meet about 45 miles outside of the Japan’s Tōhoku region. The Japan Meteorological Agency triggered their emergency warning system, advising residents to flee to high ground as quickly as possible. Lasting an unthinkable six minutes, this was fourth most powerful earthquake in recorded history and the most powerful to ever take place in Japan. Ten minutes after the initial shockwave, an enormous tsunami travelling at 435mph produced a 133ft wave that hit Iwate Prefecture, engulfing the airport, buildings, homes and cars. Helicopter footage of the event captured people fleeing in their vehicles only to be enveloped by the flood. The water travelled nearly 6 miles inland, killing 19,747 people.
The aftermath of the carnage had a profound effect on the residents of the region, many of whom not only lost their homes, but also lost friends and loved ones. One of the most inundated areas was the coastal city of Ishinomaki, a commercial fishing hub. The statistics were horrifying. Some 29,000 residents lost their homes; 3,000 people died, including 70 percent of the students at an elementary school. Bereft parents anxiously awaited news, wondering if their children had, against all odds, managed to survive. Likewise, numerous children, whose houses were swept away, questioned if they were now orphaned.
As the waters receded, the dead revealed themselves. Those who could be identified were returned to loved ones. After months of searching through millions of tons of excavated debris, nearly 400 people remained unaccounted. For those not immediately found, some families refused to concede their loved ones were lost to the sea. Others joined the throngs of mourners who were hosting memorials for their lost loved ones. Everyone was psychologically damaged by this singular moment, whether they directly lost someone or not.
Particularly in the early months and years after the tsunami, Ishinomaki was an eerie place. Personal effects were strewn everywhere. Muddied children’s toys protruded from debris reminding passersby that the owner will likely never be reunited with this once loved treasure. Survivors described a sensation that the departed were still very much nearby. So much so that, in the early months following the tsunami, an incredible phenomenon took place in the area. Seven separate taxi drivers admitted they picked up passengers who vanished from their vehicle at some point during their journeys.
These incidents were documented by Yuka Kudo, a student at Tohoku Gakuin University, who interviewed more than 100 taxi drivers for her sociology thesis in 2016. In one of the earliest incidents, a young woman, wearing a heavy winter coat hailed a cab near a public transport station. The driver noted the coat as being quite strange since the weather was warm. Upon entering the driver’s car, she asked, “Can you take me to Minamihama, please?” The driver responded, “There’s nothing at Minamihama anymore.” The woman fell silent and, after a few moments said, “Have I died?” The driver, struck by this question, turned to look at the woman who was no longer there.
Another driver described how he picked up a young man in his early 20s who, upon entering the vehicle, simply pointed forward when asked where he wanted to go. After a while, the driver pressed the young man for an address to which he responded, “Hiyoriyama,” a mountain not far from Ishinomaki. Upon arriving at the summit, the driver turned around to discover that the young man had vanished. Yet another driver was hailed by a passenger who requested to be taken to a residential address. When the driver arrived, the lot was empty. The house had been swept away in the flood. The taxi driver asked, “Are you sure this is the right place?” Again, when the driver looked into his rearview mirror, the passenger was gone.
These stories might easily be dismissed as modern folklore, but what lends credence to their claims is that Kudo was given access to their driving logs. In Japan, taxi drivers are liable for the fare once they start the meter, meaning, if the passenger doesn’t pay, the driver must reimburse the fare out of their wages. In each of these incidents, the driver started the meter and had to cover the cost of the ‘phantom’ fare. Although these seven drivers were the only ones Kudo managed to get on record, she was told other drivers had experienced similar phenomenon, but were reluctant to discuss the incidents publicly.
Nearly half of the Japanese population is affiliated with Shinto, an ancient indigenous religion that revolves around supernatural entities known as the kami. The term kami encompasses a wide range of spiritual forces, most of which emanate from nature, but also includes god-like beings and the spirits of the dead. Within Shinto, a heavy emphasis is placed on venerating the spirits of family ancestors (known as the family kami), who are believed to be woven into the interconnecting energy of the universe. When a family member passes away, their spirit is cared for by their family who must administer funeral rites and pray regularly at the gravesite to ensure peaceful passage into the afterlife. According to modern Shinto beliefs, a person’s spirit assists the living for 33 years, after which the spirit becomes integrated into the family kami.
However, this normal progression can be disrupted if the person experiences a violent death or is denied the appropriate funerary rites. Japanese folklore speaks of the yūrei, spirits who wander the earthly plane searching for a home they can no longer reach. Under these circumstances, the spirit may believe they have unfinished business to which they must attend. The spirit becomes so myopically focused on completing their last action or thought that they may not even realize they are dead. The only way to free the yūrei from this infinite loop is for family or friends to perform a proper burial, which then allows the lost spirit to cross over.
Clearly, the taxi drivers encountering phantom passengers hint at this folklore from the Shinto religion. With hundreds of people violently drowned and never given proper burials, many Japanese believe these lost souls are left to wander the streets of Ishinomaki, eternally searching for their homes that no longer exist. Indeed, these types of encounters have been reported not just by taxi drivers, but by residents all over Ishinomaki who have seen family members and friends who died in the tsunami.
Psychologists refer to these types of encounters as grief hallucinations. They have been widely documented across cultures and religions. Furthermore, they are common among people who have lost loved ones or endured tragedy. However, for those who witness these apparitions, most wouldn’t characterize them as hallucinations. From their perspective, these are real encounters that can elicit a wide range of emotional reactions. The majority are positive and leave the person feeling as though they’ve been privileged to a unique spiritual experience. Kudo’s interviews are consistent with this larger array of academic literature. The taxi drivers claimed to feel no fear during these interactions. One driver went so far as to say, “If I encounter a ghost again, I will accept it as my passenger.”
The intriguing nature of these ghost stories certainly captures the imagination, but they also raise numerous profound questions about afterlife. As I discussed in Chapter 1, I personally do not believe in ghosts and these stories are perfect illustrations of why. Not only did these people meet a horrific end by unexpectedly drowning in a deluge of sea water, but, if the Japanese folklore surrounding ghosts is an accurate representation of what happens when we die, then they are doomed to wander the earth, endlessly trying to complete their last task unless they are given a proper funeral. I find that possibility deeply troubling and unjust.
Firstly, who made up this system of afterlife and decided that the people who meet a traumatic end require funerary rites for their spirits to be released from this realm? Secondly, of all the ghosts to be trapped wandering the earth, shouldn’t the people who die in the most violent and terrifying ways be the ones who don’t have to suffer on the other side? Shouldn’t they be comforted and released from their anguish, not forced to infinitely repeat their last task in a state of perpetual confusion? These logical fallacies are why I dismiss ghosts as nothing more than mythology. In my opinion, these ghost stories tell us more about the living than the dead. Not only do they reveal our own psychological struggles with death, but they also expose the importance of saying a proper goodbye to those we love.
Kudo isn’t the only one to document these types of apparitions. In Richard Lloyd Parry’s book Ghosts of the Tsunami, he chronicles similar types of stories, though they cannot be verified in the same way Kudo’s can with the taxi logs. In the same vein of spirits seeking to complete unfinished business, residents have reported seeing figures lining up outside shops that had been destroyed. According to Parry, a middle-aged man in the town of Kurihara stopped going out in rainstorms because he reported seeing the eyes of the dead staring up at him out of puddles.