Warning: Spoilers are ahead for Unsolved Mysteries "Tsunami Ghosts."
Unsolved Mysteries is known for incorporating a good ghost story now and then. And in volume 2 of Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries of the long-running series, we may have just found one of its most tragic and compelling ghost stories to date. The episode, and all of the paranormal sightings, takes place in northeastern Japan’s Tōhoku region. It seems that for every story, there is an attempted explanation.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude nine earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. The tsunami that followed shortly after devastated the coast and nearby inland areas. Waves reached a maximum recorded height of 131 feet. Families were separated, neighborhoods leveled, and whole regions were affected. In total, about 20,000 lives were reportedly lost. Months later, when the headlines in major news outlets had moved on, stories began to emerge in the area of ghost sightings and people being possessed by spirits of those who perished in the tsunami.
In the episode of Unsolved Mysteries, one woman recounted seeing a group of people who were all soaking wet. They said they were lost and asked her for directions. Somehow, she got the sense that they were ghosts and she explained to them that they had died. Another woman, who asked that her identity be kept secret, said that she was repeatedly possessed by different spirits trying to find peace. This was corroborated by a Buddhist priest, Reverend Taio Kaneda who said that he performed exorcisms on this woman to free the spirits from her.
Historically, Japan ranks as one of the least religious countries in the world. So why all of this sudden belief in ghosts and an afterlife? “I think it is because of Japanese spirituality and the way we perceive life and death,” Kaneda explained in the episode. “Japanese people don’t separate the dead from the living.” He used shoji, a sliding door made of very thin paper, as an analogy of how the country’s culture views death. Once someone opens the door and crosses over, the living can still see them on the other side. For Reverend Kaneda, it was less about whether he was encountering actual ghosts when helping people in the community that came to him. Whether he thought it was real or not, they thought it was real.
Kiyoshi Kanebishi, a professor of sociology at Took Gakuin University in Sendai, thinks that there is a psychological component to the phenomenon. It is less about whether people are actually seeing what some might call a ghost or spirit and more to do with processing intense emotions and profound grief in a way that is easier to the mind to comprehend. “The disaster was very traumatic for the people of the Tohoku region,” said Kanebishi. “I think the presence of ghosts is a way for people to cope with their PTSD as a community. I believe that’s what is being manifested here.”
Even several years later, thousands of people were still reported missing and had never been found. The cities and surrounding areas have been largely rebuilt, but the ravages of the tsunami will always be part of the region’s history and so will the continued sightings of those who lost their lives.