Kind-hearted Japanese Taxi Drivers Who Pay for Ghost Passengers’ Fares
by Masaki Watanabe
Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu / Happy New Year! I hope you’ll continue to read my columns this year. To kick off the New Year, I’d like to discuss the spiritual sentiment of Japanese people as well as that of Japanese Canadians, many of whom probably inherit it. It seems distinctly different from that of Westerners steeped in the Christian and Jewish faiths. A good example of the case in point is a report penned by a Japanese-speaking American reporter who visited Hokuriku, a region that bore the brunt of the 2011 tsunami disaster that some 16,000 lives. Some of you readers may feel it’s “inauspicious”. But I would have to beg their forgiveness, as my focus is specifically on certain kindness of heart that might be peculiar to Japanese people.
Allow me to cite a “quote of a quote,” but Ms Jenn Gidman, who writes for the magazine Newser, begins with a report in the prestigious daily Asahi Shimbun about a sociology student, Ms Yuka Kudou, who interviewed for her dissertation taxi drivers in Ishimaki, Miyagi prefecture, one of the coastal towns severely hit by the tsunami. She surveyed them with the question: “Did you have some strange experiences after that disaster?” Many of the drivers were irritated by the question, and some even pretended they did not hear it. But seven of the drivers were willing to respond. As it turned out, all of them said they had driven “ghost passengers.”
They would get into their cabs, but would disappear before their rides were over. One driver remembered a woman who got into his cab asking “Have I died?” She too disappeared before reaching her destination. Another driver remembered a man who got on saying “Please take me further up the slope,” before he vanished. Many of these ghosts were young men and women.
Ms Kudou told Asahi Shimbun about her theory on this. “Young people feel strongly chagrined [about their own deaths] when they can no longer meet people they love. As they want to convey their bitterness, they may have chosen taxis which are like private rooms for their medium to do so.”
Notably, the drivers themselves did not seem to have been overly spooked by their experiences. “It is not strange to see ghosts around here,” said one cabby. “If I encounter a ghost again, I will accept it as my passenger.” Japanese cabbies start the meter as soon as passengers get in. In the event, all these drivers payed for the ghosts’ fares. Their thinking was that the ghosts were real passengers, at least when they got on.
Imagine, if you will, something like that happening in Canada and other western countries. The driver would probably say “A passenger I took from X to Y disappeared during the ride, so he didn’t pay his fare.” The management might respond “Disappeared? Do you expect us to believe that? How much was it anyway? $20? We’re not interested in your excuses, so why don’t you just reimburse it?”
In the case of Ishimaki and elsewhere with similar cases in Japan, the management would probably say something like “Ghost riders again? The poor souls. We appreciate you reimbursing their fares.” They all share a sort of genuine sympathy for the ghosts. In the West, such a response would be generally considered unacceptable and irrational, though some spiritualists and their ilk might say otherwise. To be sure, there was a lot of interest in the Newser article in the US too. The well-established daily San Francisco Chronicle, for one, reprinted it.
From global warming to escalating conflicts in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, there seems to be a growing trend for people who are tired of feeling helpless to turn to the spiritual world for comfort. In the US, it is reported that the population of those who have joined groups practicing witchcraft has outstripped that of Presbyterians and other protestant sects.
Recently I read an essay by one Ms Takatsuki Oda, “the last woman to be loved” by world-famous Japanese movie actor Ken Takakura who passed away five years ago (December 2019 issue of monthly Bungei Shunjuu). She describes interesting episodes that can be appreciated by Japanese people and probably many Nikkei people everywhere as well.
The five years since the actor died have “gone by in a flash,” she writes, but she feels as though “he is right here beside me all the time.” But from time to time she is “caught off guard” by loneliness in the course of her daily life.
“At times like that, I’d send out a message saying ‘I miss you’ and sometimes, he would respond. The other day, an exercise ball I’d left in the corner of my room started to roll on its own even though I had not touched the air-conditioner. ‘What’s this?’ I wondered as I kept looking at it. It went to and fro over and over a dozen or so times. I thought it was Takakura’s signal so I kept looking at it with a smile on my face but it won’t stop. So finally I said ‘I’m OK now’ and it stopped moving (laughter).”
Bungei Shunjuu is a monthly intellectual literary magazine dating back to the 1920s. Its a publication targetting the intelligentsia, like the New Yorker, the Atlantic Esquire and others in the US. I daresay one would rarely find such articles in them because such topics are simply outside the realm of rational or theoretical common sense. One exception would be the famous actress Ms Shirley McLaine who has written best-sellers on her experiences in the spiritual realm.
I think an important characteristic of Japanese people, including intellectuals, is that they share mental largesse ready to accept “unscientific” things that appeal to one’s emotion rather than his reason as well. The Japanese people, who have always believed in a world of many gods, tend to judge good and evil in relative terms rather than in absolute terms like the almighty versus the devil.
One example would be how a man who killed someone while intoxicated is tried in a court of law. In Japan, the defence might cite his intoxicated state as a mitigating circumstance. It’s an emotional consideration in that one may sympathize with the defendant for getting drunk. Under western values, it is one’s own decision to drink or not, so killing someone while drunk is not a legally acceptable mitigating circumstance.
It is hard to say which is better, but in the West, scientists, lawyers and such generally do not make public comments based on their emotions. In Japan, they might speak both rationally and emotionally in public even in one breath. I believe this difference is worth bearing in mind for us Japanese Canadians and Japanese immigrants living in this multi-racial society.