Japan’s Very Real Problem with Shame and Evaporated People

At some point, we’ve all dreamed about disappearing and escaping from life’s problems. For most of us, it’s a mere fantasy in the midst of a bad day. In Japan, it’s a very real problem called johatsu, or “evaporated people.”

Ningen Johatsu
The concept of johatsu can be traced back to the 1967 movie “Ningen Johatsu.”

Shame is the powerful force behind johatsu. When facing the prospect of losing a job, a failing marriage, or crippling debt, thousands of Japanese a year choose to leave their old identities and start over in Japan’s off-grid world.

But, how can someone disappear without a trace in a developed nation like Japan? French journalist Léna Mauger and her husband Stéphane Ramael found interest in the topic after a friend told them about a johatsu story in 2008. The tale of a Japanese couple disappearing without a trace one night piqued their interest, and the duo decided to travel to Japan to investigate the phenomenon.

Over the course of five years, Mauger and her husband managed to track down a handful of johatsu and “nighttime movers” and published their stories in a book titled The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs

Johatsu
Faced with failure and shame, many Japanese people choose to start new lives in Japan’s underground.

A variety of reasons behind people’s “evaporations” were given. A student was too ashamed to tell his parents about failing an exam, a chronic gambler couldn’t face his wife after losing so much money, and a married couple that couldn’t afford to pay back a loan for their dumpling restaurant.

Saving face is a powerful social concept in Japan, and people would rather choose to run away or commit suicide than to face the shame of failure. And with the case of johatsu, Japan’s government makes it easy to disappear. Privacy laws are ironclad, which makes it virtually impossible to track down johatsu cases. It’s as simple as failing to register your address with a city hall. Without registration, the government has no way of tracking you down, and personal data, like debit card transactions, can only be accessed in criminal cases. Johtasu falls under civil cases.

Shou Hatori
Shou Hatori is a nighttime mover who specializes in helping people “evaporate.”

Image © Stéphane Remael

In order to find johatsu, Mauger and Ramael had to gain the trust of a nighttime mover named Shou Hatori. He runs a business that specializes in helping people disappear. While thousands of cases do happen a year, Hatori mentioned that ’90s were the peak era due to the economy crashing.

The journalists were expecting to find most johatsu living in rural communities, but Hatori would lead them to Sany’a (in Tokyo) and Kamagasaki (in Osaka). These neighborhoods don’t require IDs since they are run by the yakuza. In fact, it’s not uncommon for johatsu to take up cash paying jobs for the yakuza since you won’t have to file taxes.

Sany'a, Tokyo
Sany’a, Tokoy is popular neighborhood for johatsu to live in.

Mauger and Ramael wrote about struggling to understand why some people would want to vanish over little things, like failing an exam. And they aren’t alone: interviews with family members of johatsu couldn’t understand why loved ones would want to disappear and abandon their loved ones. Since Mauger and Ramael’s book hasn’t been published in Japan, the families may never truly find an answer.

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1 COMMENT

  1. The culture of Japan has really left me baffled and intrigued. The fact that this is an option, a legitimate and established thing, amazes me beyond my own comprehension. I can kind of understand why people might choose this path, but where I live, in the United States, it isn’t really a thing (although I’m sure people do it). I don’t know if I support it, but I do understand it if I put this information next to what I know about the views and nature of Japanese society and culture (which I admit is limited, but somewhat sufficient).

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