Almost everyone working in the public service industry for any length of time has at least a few stories about strange customers. About a half-dozen Japanese taxi drivers, however, claim to have had not just odd but ghostly customers. They report that all seems like a normal fare until the phantom passenger mysteriously vanishes from the back seat before arriving at their destination.

Not merely fodder for an “X-Files" episode or horror movie, it's claimed to have happened in real life.

According to a story on MSN.com, “At least seven taxi drivers in Ishinomaki, northeast Japan, have reported experiencing a 'phantom fare' in the wake of the devastating 2011 tsunami and earthquake. In each instance, the story is similar. A taxi driver in northeast Japan picks up a passenger in an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He starts the meter and asks for the destination, to which the customer gives a strange response. Either then, or sometime later, the driver turns around to address the man or woman—but the passenger has vanished. This is because, it is claimed, it was a 'ghost passenger' who was, in fact, killed in the disaster five years ago."

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In some cases the ghostly passenger is reported to have strangely inquired from the back seat, “Am I dead?"

There are several red flags that the story is implausible, beginning of course with the question of why a ghost would need to take a taxi anywhere. The origins ascribed to the ghosts by the taxi drivers is also curious: none of the reports have the ghosts explicitly stating that they were victims of the 2011 disaster; that detail seems to be assumed by the drivers, likely because of the area's history. Yet why would ghostly victims of the tsunami wait five years to suddenly appear and start taking taxis just to freak out some cab drivers?

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Though the reports seem new, they are an interesting new twist on a very old story, in fact one of the best-known urban legends in the world. It's known as The Vanishing Hitchhiker and the basic story goes something like this: During a road trip, usually at night, a lone figure is seen standing by the side of the road. A driver stops and offers the person a ride; the drive proceeds either in total silence or with only a few words spoken. The driver later arrives at a destination and turns to the hitchhiker, only to find that the mysterious guest has vanished. Sometimes the story ends with the driver speaking to someone at the destination who identifies his phantom passenger as the spirit of a person who had died somewhere near where they were picked up.

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Folklorist Jan Brunvand notes in his 1981 book “The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings" that “The specific 'proof' in the story of the hitchhiker's actual presence in the car and her status as the ghost of a particular individual is always a key motif. Besides the book she leaves behind . . . the object may be a purse, a suitcase, a blanket, a sweater, a scarf, or some other item of clothing, or simply footprints or water spots in the car."

There are countless variations around the world, all of them told as true stories. While occasionally such spooky experiences are related as first-hand accounts, much more often they are told as second-or third-hand stories—what folklorists call “FOAF tales," or “Friend-of-a-Friend" stories.

Though rare, in recent years a few others have claimed to experience real-life urban legends. In 2014, for example, a man in Seattle claimed he was attacked outside a bar by a mysterious woman with a needle who stabbed him and then said “Welcome to the HIV club," suggesting that he had just been infected with the AIDS-causing virus. In fact AIDS-infected needles have long been the subject of unfounded rumors and legends.

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So what's going on among Japanese taxi drivers? It's difficult to know. A few may have had some genuinely puzzling experience, but it's hard to believe that any passengers literally vanished from the back seat and exited the car without opening a door—or paying, for that matter. Interestingly, there exists a tradition of pranks involving Japanese taxi cabs and ghostly passengers, some of which can be seen on YouTube and which may have inspired the stories.

Predictably, the taxi drivers who claim to have encountered the Japanese ghosts are anonymous, and therefore can't be questioned further. If what they say is true—and some of the thousands of tsunami victims in the Ishinomaki prefecture continue to hail cabs from the afterlife—then proving it should be as simple as installing inexpensive videocameras in the taxis.

Either way it's a fascinating look at modern folklore and how an old urban legend can be adapted for new generations.

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