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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.