Supposedly “cursed” phone numbers are seemingly a dime a dozen these days. There’s at least one in almost every country and region you can think of — and, in many cases, more than one. But in Japan, there’s a cursed phone number unlike any other on the rapidly growing list of phone numbers you should never, ever call. This phone number, you see, will connect you with… yourself — but also not yourself. Japan’s “doppelganger phone number,” as it’s called, is said to connect you with your own double — although, of course, should you call it, you do so at your own risk.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
The legends are hazy on what exactly is meant to happen to you if you do call the number. Some simply note that it’s an unnerving experience, having a conversation with yourself — an eerie but minor brush with the uncanny. Others, however, say that, should you stay on the line long enough, your double will cease repeating what you yourself are saying and start uttering other words instead — words like “persistent” and “already tired.” Some even imply that you might be tempting fate: It’s said that people who meet their doppelgangers die within three days of that meeting, so who knows what might happen should you actively reach out and get in touch with your own double? Nothing good, that’s for sure. It’s possible, according to these accounts, that calling the doppelganger phone number will result in your own death.
Echo Tests And Sound Quality
In the telecommunications industry, there are two primary kinds of sound quality tests, or “echo” tests, as they’re known: One for which you simply record a message by speaking down the line when prompted, which is then played back for you; and one which is done live and in real time — that is, as soon as you speak a word or phrase into the phone, it repeats it back to you through the earpiece. The Japanese doppelganger number is the latter — and although it’s certainly odd if you stumble upon it without knowing what it is, there’s nothing supernatural about it.
It’s easy to experience a real-time echo test yourself, even if you don’t live in Japan: A number free services exist in numerous places around the world that allow you to do just that. The Test Call, for example, supplies numbers based in Toronto, New York, British Columbia, Dublin, and the UK for various test services, including echo tests. When you dial one of these numbers, the service launches immediately into the “record a message and hear it played back to you” version of the test; if you don’t want to do that, though, just press the pound key right away without recording a message, then wait until the automated menu give you the option to press 3 for the real-time echo test. After the tone, just start talking and you’ll hear the echo test in action.
But just because there’s a ready explanation for the doppelganger number legend in Japan doesn’t mean there isn’t still a mystery waiting to be solved here. The mystery isn’t about what the number is; it’s about when the legend associated with the number started — and why.
And here, my friends, is where the plot thickens.
Because as I started to look into the whole thing, I found that there’s actually more than one doppelganger number in Japan — by which I mean not just more than one number you call to initiate an echo test (although of course that’s the case; Japan is a nation of 126.5 million people, after all — it would make no sense to have only one echo test number servicing the entire country), but more than one number connected with the specific urban legend based around the idea of the doppelganger number. And as I traced each number as thoroughly as I could, I found that you can track the evolution of the legend itself — in a rough sort of way, at least.
There are limitations to my usual research methods, of course. Most sources both for the legend itself and for the Japanese telecommunication industry more broadly are in Japanese, for one thing — but since I don’t speak Japanese, I’m viewing everything through the frequently questionable filter of Google Translate. Additionally, the vast majority of research tools available to me are strictly internet-based; however, it’s worth remembering that the earliest mention of a particular legend on the internet isn’t necessarily the earliest time at which the legend began circulating.
Still, though — there’s more than one interesting kernel worth pursuing here, and there’s enough to at least sketch out what might be the legend’s path (in recent years, at least).
Let’s start with the numbers themselves.
A Tale Of Five Phone Numbers
In my research, I came across five different phone numbers associated with the doppelganger legend, all of which are, in fact, actual phone numbers. The number that started my trip down this particular rabbit hole. though, is 073-499-9999.
This is the one that’s most frequently attached to the doppelganger number legend these days, largely because it’s actually been operational within recent memory. A landline based in Wakayama — a region in the same neck of the woods as Nara and Osaka — the 073-499-9999 number is serviced by NTT West Japan, the regional subsidiary of the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation that services the western parts of Japan.
(NTT was established as a state monopoly in 1952 after the end of the occupation of Japan by the Allied forces following the Second World War; it was privatized in 1985, but still maintains a hold over virtually all landlines in Japan.)
Of all the doppelganger numbers I’ve found, this one is the only one that’s clearly identified in various public databases as a test line. JP Number — which generally has the most complete records of all the databases I looked at — includes in its listing for 073-499-9999 that it’s specifically “電話の音質を確認する為の電話番号” — that is, a “phone number to check the sound quality of the phone.”
Generally speaking, more recent pieces of writing coming out of Japan discussing the doppelganger number legend use this number. These pieces are typically dated within the past few years — often 2016 or 2017, with updates having been applied as recently as April of 2020. However, some posts from much earlier also include it: Post number six in this 2ch thread is dated 2006/2007, while this post at long-running online diary platform DiaryNote dates all the way back to April 2004.
As various videos uploaded to YouTube demonstrate, 073-499-9999 was very much still functional in 2016 as an echo test number; videos from 2020 show somewhat more mixed results, but it still seems to work at least somewhat.
The next number I located is 090- 2048-1972.
Unlike the 073 number, this one isn’t a landline; it’s a mobile phone number serviced by KDDI. (If you’re a longtime TGIMM reader, you may recall KDDI from our look at Sadako’s alleged phone number a few years back.) It may not be in use as an echo test number anymore; recent comments on both JP Number and TelNavi state that by the end of 2019, you received an error message of some sort when you called. (I can’t tell you exactly what the error message says in English, as Google Translate’s version is incredibly garbled — something about being “out of reach of the radio wave.” In Japanese, though, it’s “おかけになった電話は電波の届かない場所にあるか、電源が入っていない又はパケット通信中のためかかりません” according to the commenter at TelNavi.) But comments at those same sites note that in 2017, you did hear yourself when you connected with 090-2048-1972: The popular way to describe it is “声が戻って来る,” which Google Translates converts into “The voice comes back.”)
This doppelganger number appears in two sources that also make up some of the earliest mentions of the 073 number: The previously-mentioned 2ch post from 2006/2007, and the DiaryNote post from April of 2004. However, I found two other mentions of it from 2004: One on a personal website seemingly focused on language and trivia dated October of that year, and one on a Japanese site focused on Fortean-esque phenomena that predates all of these other mentions: The page including the references was preserved via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine on Feb. 2, 2004.
Two further numbers, both mobile numbers serviced by KDDI, also became attached to the doppelganger number legend by around 2006/2007: 090-2048-1975 and 090-1199-1563. Both of these numbers appear in that 2ch post; additionally, later mentions of the number ending in 1563 appear in this Yahoo! Japan forum post from 2013 and in this huge roundup of weird Japanese phone numbers published at Tocana in 2017. It’s perhaps also worth noting that the 090-2048-1975 is just a single digit off from the 090-2048-1972 number, and therefore may be a typo.
And lastly, there’s 017-299-9999. Like the 073 number, this one is a landline serviced by NTT, rather than a mobile number serviced by KDDI; however, it’s based in Aomori, in the city of Hirosaki — that is, it’s much further north than Wakayam (indeed, it’s all the way up on the northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu), and it’s on the east coast, which means it’s serviced not by NTT West Japan, but by NTT East Japan. In a piece published at AllAbout.co.jp in September of 2004, it’s cited alongside the 073 number as a mysterious number that will allow you to “speak” to yourself.
So there you have it: Five so-called “doppelganger numbers” which not only either were once or still are used as echo test numbers in Japan, but which have also gotten tied up with the urban legend surrounding such phone numbers over time.
There might be more that I haven’t found, too, but these numbers on their own do at least give us an idea of the timeline of the legend. What so many of them have in common (three of the five, in fact) is that they were being passed around as doppelganger numbers by 2004, with the 090-2048-1972 number being the earliest of the bunch and the 073-499-9999 number having the most longevity — but if you set Google to search for these numbers before Dec. 31, 2004, you’ll find only the sources I’ve mentioned and linked to in this piece. As far as I can tell, there are no earlier mentions of these phone numbers anywhere on the internet prior to 2004.
Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the doppelganger number legend didn’t exist prior to 2004 — just that people weren’t talking about it on the internet before then, or, if they were, that none of these earlier sources have been preserved.
But it does prompt us to ask one very specific question: Did something happen around 2004 to inspire interest in the doppelganger number legend?
The answer is… maybe. But there’s also a lot more to it than just this one event.
Doppelgangers And Doubling, Past And Present
In September of 2003, filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who is perhaps best known for 2001’s Pulse (回路, Kairo), but also wrote and directed 1997’s Cure (キュア, Kyua) and 2016’s Creepy (クリーピー 偽りの隣人, Kurīpī: Itsuwari no Rinjin), released a new film in Japan: Doppelganger (ドッペルゲンガー, Dopperugengā).
A horror-comedy, Doppelganger centers around a mild-mannered engineer and inventor, Michio Hayasaki (played by Kiyoshi Kurosawa regular Kōji Yakusho) who encounters his own double (also Yakusho) — except that his other self is his complete opposite in every way: Brash where Michio is retiring, overconfident where Michio is suffering from imposter syndrome, and impulsive where Michio is plagued by a tendency toward inaction. Naturally, Michio’s life is completely upended by the arrival of his doppelganger, and, well… it… doesn’t go quite where you’re probably expecting it to, but I’ll leave it there so I don’t spoil anything for you. (Doppelganger made it to the United States in 2005; it’s currently available to stream for free on Tubi.)
So, on the one hand, we have the release of a movie by a much-lauded filmmaker putting the idea of the doppelganger directly in front of people just a few months before the doppelganger phone number legends began circulating the internet. But there’s a particular detail in Doppelganger that’s worth drawing attention to. From the Wikipedia plot summary of the film: “Fearing he’s having a mental breakdown, [Michio] wonders whether a legend that says one is destined to die soon after seeing one’s own doppelganger may be true.”
Doppelganger, you see, is just a springboard. The concept of doubling appears in Japanese folklore and mythology stretching back even before recorded history.
The ikiryo (生霊 or いきりょう) is perhaps the most well-known doppelganger-like figure in Japanese folklore. A type of yurei — a word which translates imperfectly to “ghost” — ikiryo differ from what most Westerners usually think of as ghosts (e.g. the spirits of people who have died) in that they actually belong to people who are still alive. Indeed, the word “ikiryo” is usually translated into English as something like “living ghost.”
As artist and folklorist Matthew Meyer explains in both a blog post on his own website and at Yokai.com, the online yokai and yurei database he maintains, ikiryo are “the souls of still-living people which have temporarily left their bodies and move about on their own.” They might appear to be transparent or ephemeral, or they might appear as solid as a human being — but regardless as to their opacity, they’re always perfect twins to the people of which they’re born.
Ikiryo can arise from any number of circumstances, including but not limited to a near-death experience; intense desire, passion, or hatred; trauma, either physical or emotional; fainting or losing consciousness; or even as part of a grudge or curse. They also might manifest in any number of ways, from simply walking around to visiting loved ones; in extreme circumstances — particularly when an ikiryo is born of a grudge or trauma — they might actually attack the person or people responsible for harming the living people to which they’re tied.
That’s what happens in one of the most famous ikiryo stories in Japanese literature: The episode of the Heian-era epic The Tale Of Genji involving Lady Rokujo. Written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale Of Genji is frequently cited as the first modern novel; it chronicles the life and times of the fictitious Hikaru Genji, the son of an emperor who has been removed from the line of succession and instead lives as an imperial officer.
In this particular episode, Lady Rokujo, the widow of a prince who has lost her status, and Genji have a pretty spectacular love affair; eventually, though, he loses interest — and besides, he’s already married. He may have been on the outs with his wife, Lady Aoi, but the spouses do eventually reconcile and she becomes pregnant with their first child. Lady Rokujo’s jealousy and sadness subsequently brings forth an ikiryo which haunts Lady Aoi night after night — without Lady Rokujo even knowing it’s happened.
However, ikiryo were also believed in some regions of Japan to appear shortly before a person’s death. They might be omens; they might be symptoms of some illnesses; or they might simply be attempting to say goodbye to certain people before death arrives. And, as Meyer points out, it’s this part of the legend that most modern superstitions about ikiryo focus on: The idea that your double appears as a herald of your own death.
More recently, there’s Koito-san — a creature from a kowai hanashi, or Japanese creepypasta, initially circulated via 2ch. Here, the idea that seeing your double is an omen of your death — or perhaps that your double might even be the cause of your death — is made more explicit; it’s a key characteristic of the story.
We’ve covered Koito-san’s connection with doppelganger legends at TGIMM before, including the similarities between Koito-san and ikiryo; you can read the full discussion in Koito-san’s Encyclopaedia entry here. To read the original kowai hanashi, writer Tara A. Devlin regularly translates 2ch posts from Japanese into English at her website, Kowabana; her translation of the chunk of text associated with Koito-san can be found here. But the gist of it is this:
Koito-san is said to be a figure you’ll see only twice in your life — although your goal, really, should be to never see Koito-san, because to see Koito-san is to ensure certain death.
To be fair, the first time you see it, the sighting functions more as an omen than anything else. It’s a warning — and, should you see Koito-san once, it’s your cue to do everything you can to avoid seeing Koito-san ever again. Because the second time you see it… you won’t survive the encounter.
The story offers some tips on how to avoid Koito-san: First, pay attention to your surroundings; if Koito-san is nearby, you might experience things like the sudden and strange disappearance of all your five yen coins or the unfortunate and premature death of any pets you might have. And second, if you’re unlucky enough to see Koito-san once, ensuring that you’re never, ever alone after that moment will keep Koito-san at bay.
But how will you know if you’ve seen Koito-san in the first place, you ask?
Easy: Koito-san looks just like you — right down to the very last detail.
In other words, Koito-san is your doppelganger.
And — as mentioned in the film Doppelganger — after you see your doppelganger, you’re pretty much destined to die.
I’ve unfortunately been unable to determine when Koito-san first hit 2ch. Originally launched in 1999 and rebranded as 5ch in 2017, 2ch has always been distinguished by its early adoption of anonymous posting, making it hard to track both individual users and posts alike. Furthermore, as Devlin explains at Kowabana, it’s long been common practice at 2ch to delete posts frequently in order to free up space for new posts. In order to “save them from the black hole of the internet,” as Devlin puts it, 2ch users developed a habit of copying and pasting the best stories over and over again, sharing them, and resharing them, and sharing them again — and while this habit does preserve the texts themselves, the original versions of the posts are frequently lost. Select archives of old 2ch threads do exist, but without any sort of centralized archive, tracing the true origins of any story posted to 2ch is extremely difficult — and sometimes straight-up impossible.
Sometimes, I’m able to find a surprising wealth of old 2ch archives during my research process. (See also: My attempt to seek out the origins of the Elevator To Another World ritual legend.) Sometimes, though, I come up empty — and that’s what happened with Koito-san. I couldn’t find any 2ch archives featuring the story; nor could I find any sources that might indicate whether Koito-san began on 2ch, or whether the legend was simply retold there.
But even so, given Koito-san’s status as a kowai hanashi, the legend can easily be seen as a modern incarnation of the doubling legends rife throughout Japan’s folkloric history — and so, I think, can the doppelganger phone numbers.
It’s true that the details vary from legend to legend. But the same key elements are there each time: The doubling; the fact that the living person is unaware that their double exists before encountering them; and the idea that once you encounter your double, your death is imminent. Whether we’re dealing with ancient ikiryo, or the more modern Koito-san, or simply the sound of your own voice echoing back at you down a telephone line, the same fears and superstitions run through the legend each time. Each new generation adapts them for their own era, time and time again.
And that, I think, is the best thing about legends: They connect us all — past, present, and future.
Doubles and all.
Support The Ghost In My Machine on Patreon for behind-the-scenes access and other bonus content.You can also follow on Twitter @GhostMachine13 and on Facebook @TheGhostInMyMachine. And for more games, don’t forget to check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available now from Chronicle Books!