Join Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions! Subscribe Today!

Japan’s Evaporated People and the Town of the Vanished

People vanish all over the world for a variety of reasons, ranging from the mundane to the more mysterious and even supernatural, and while this may seem to be a phenomenon confined to sparsely populated or remote areas, this is not always true. In the island nation of Japan one can find one of the most bustling, crowded cities in the world, Tokyo. This is a vast jungle of concrete and high rises crisscrossed by countless roads, highways, train lines, and webs of subway systems, and it is also a place where tens of thousands of people regularly drop off the face of the earth. Not only is this a mecca of disappearances, but nestled within this advanced metropolis is a place where the vanished go. It is a place where they become shadows in a sense, husks of their former selves, perpetually cloaked in secrecy and mystery. This is the strange story of Japan’s evaporated people and the town they call home.

One very unusual cultural trend in Japan in recent times has been that of what are called the johatsu, or roughly translated to the rather creepy sounding “evaporated people.” These are people of all ages and all walks of life, both men and women, who suddenly orchestrate their own vanishing, dropping out of society and disappearing without a trace, never to be found, leaving behind confusion, mystery, and concerned family members who rarely get any answers. While disappearances happen all over the world and there are obviously those in many cultures who choose to fall off the grid, in Japan there are estimated to have been around at least 100,000 since the 1990s; an astronomical amount considering the country’s population of approximately 127 million.

The reasons for the johatsu phenomenon are many, but mostly can probably be boiled down to Japan’s society of conformity, high expectations, and shame. Here the group is valued more than the individual, uniqueness is discouraged, the nail that sticks out often hammered back down. For students, they are expected to enter a good university, which necessitates taking stringent entrance examinations that require studying practically every moment of their free time. Once in society, they will more often than not be subjected to Japan’s fanatical work ethic, with harsh deadlines and countless hours of unpaid overtime. Indeed, the work environment is so taxing that Japan is probably unique in that it has its own word for death by overwork, karoshi, which affects hundreds or possibly even thousands of people per year. For those who cannot fit in, who cannot pass their tests, or who lose their jobs, great shame can be brought down on them and even their families.

It is due to this exacting, unforgiving environment that many such people seek to escape in some form. For others it might be because of an abusive marriage or severe gambling debts, but in all cases there is a desire to escape. It is for this reason that Japan’s suicide rate is estimated to be around 60% higher than the global average, and for many others the answer lies in simply vanishing. They cut all ties with the world they once knew, change their names, sometimes even their appearances, and wipe their slates clean; shedding their old life in order to find some sense of freedom from the oppressive society that has shunned them. In most cases, they are never heard from again, leaving uncertainty as to what has happened to them or even if they are alive or dead. French journalist Léna Mauger, who wrote the definitive report on this phenomenon, entitled The Vanished: The Evaporated People of Japan in Stories and Photographs, spent years studying the johatsu and said of this propensity for some people to erase themselves from society thus:

It’s so taboo. It’s something you can’t really talk about. But people can disappear because there’s another society underneath Japan’s society. When people disappear, they know they can find a way to survive. To disappear in a country as modern [as Japan], with all the techniques of tracing, with social networks, I thought that it was amazing.

There are numerous tales that have come back from some of these evaporated people that shed light on their reasons for vanishing. One which was in Mauger’s book is the sad story of an engineer known only as Norihiro. He had lost his job but was too ashamed to tell his wife about it, so he at first chose to continue to act as if he were still employed. Every day Norihiro would put on his suit and tie as usual, going through the motions and would head off to work. He would then spend the rest of his day sitting somewhere alone, even staying out late to simulate the overtime work he would be expected to do or the drinking parties he would have to attend, and then head home. However, with no incoming salary there was only so long he could keep up this charade. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before he was caught in his web of deceit and terrified of telling his wife the truth, he chose to just one day to go off and keep on going, never looking back and not even leaving a note behind. Norihiro would say of his experience:

I couldn’t do it anymore. After 19 hours I was still waiting, because I used to go out for drinks with my bosses and colleagues. I would roam around, and when I finally returned home, I got the impression my wife and son had doubts. I felt guilty. I didn’t have a salary to give them anymore. I could certainly take back my old identity … But I don’t want my family to see me in this state. Look at me. I look like nothing. I am nothing.

Another such tale concerns a construction worker called Yuichi, who in the 1990s was tasked with taking care of his sick mother. However, he found that the expenses involved in doing so were taking their toll, and he realized he did not have the means to care for her any longer. One day he took his mother to a low-scale cheap hotel, calmly checked her in, and proceeded to vanish off the face of the earth. In yet another story, a martial artist called Ichiro was happily married with a child and his life seemed to be in order. The couple had just bought a new house and started a Chinese restaurant, but then the stock market crashed and they found themselves in extreme debt. In the end, Ichiro and his whole family decided that the only answer was to “evaporate.” Ichiro would later reflect on this decision, saying:

People are cowards. They all want to throw in the towel one day, to disappear and reappear somewhere nobody knows them. I never envisioned running away to be an end in itself . . . You know, a disappearance is something you can never shake. Fleeing is a fast track toward death.

Although it may seem strange that so many people would be able to so fully vanish in a society as advanced as Japan’s, the process of evaporating is not as difficult as it may perhaps seem, and there is a whole shadow society and economy in place under the surface of Tokyo’s neon drenched, bustling metropolis waiting to assist these lost souls and take them in. One facet of this are the shady, clandestine businesses that specialize in helping people disappear, doing everything from moving their things in the dead of night, to erasing any evidence or paper trails, to even making it all look like a robbery or abduction. In some cases they will set up dummy cell phone accounts or bogus addresses for mail to go to, even setting up fake phone numbers that connect to actors paid to pretend to be friends or colleagues. In the heyday of the johatsu phenomenon companies helping with these disappearances were a veritable industry, and in a way it still is as people continue to vanish. For those who cannot afford the often exorbitant prices charged by these businesses, which are often called “night movers,” there is actually a surprising number of manuals outlining how to go about disappearing oneself, with titles such as Perfect Vanishing: Reset Your Life, and The Complete Manual of Disappearance.

Once vanished, many of these “evaporated” find themselves in whole towns or areas of the city that have fallen off the grid to cater to them. One of the most notorious such places is called Sanya, a run-down suburb of Tokyo that once served as a home for thousands of blue collar workers who helped to propel Japan’s growth during its boom years, but which is now a gritty sprawl of dirt-cheap housing and low priced shops, hotels and restaurants, essentially a slum where the down and destitute congregate. Sanya is a difficult place to find, and doesn’t even officially exist, having over the years faded from maps to become just another shoddy, nondescript neighborhood of Tokyo, and this is exactly how its denizens want it. It is a perfect place to fade away and disappear. Mauger said of this forsaken place:

Taxi drivers avoid venturing into this shady neighborhood. The only ones who go there, they say, are those excluded from the good life and forgotten by everyone—the nameless.

It is said that the majority of people who live here are those who have vanished from their former lives, living in anonymity and fiercely refusing to be photographed or talked to by outsiders. The businesses here specifically cater to those who don’t want to be found, with the evaporated finding off-the-books work paid in cash with no questions asked and the streets lined with what are called yonige-ya, or “fly-by-night shops,” which are usually run by the Japanese mafia, called the Yakuza, and which offer anything the vanished may need for cheap and all cash based. In Sanya a person can just melt away into the background, fade from existence, and never be found, even as skyscrapers and all the trappings of a modern, technologically advanced society loom nearby. Although it is populated, this place is a ghost town, its denizens phantoms in a sense, and one resident has said of Sanya:

You see people in the street, but they have already ceased to exist. When we fled from society, we disappeared the first time. Here, we are killing ourselves slowly.

Sanya, the town of the vanished

Many of these vanished people have left loved ones behind, who often have no idea of what has happened to them or even if they are alive, and it is not easy to track any of these people down. Part of the problem is the way things are done in Japan and the huge amount of red tape overlying people’s personal information. Here privacy is nearly impenetrable. For instance it is practically impossible to access public records, and such information can only be accessed in criminal cases by police, while johatsu cases are not classified as such. Further complicating things is that not even police are allowed to look at financial information such as ATM transactions, banking information, or other such records, leaving them completely blocked off from the outside world. There are also no social security numbers in Japan, and if a person has not registered themselves with city hall then it is as if they do not exist at all.

Only adding to the problem is that authorities like to pretend that the johatsu phenomenon doesn’t even exist, and tend to look away from such cases. There is also no official national database committed to missing persons, and many such cases are unregistered in police files, underreported, or played down, putting the burden of keeping true figures of missing persons onto non-profit organizations such as The Missing Persons Search Support Association of Japan. These formidable difficulties have meant that a family’s only choice is to go to one of the thousands of private detective agencies in Tokyo, many of which specialize in johatsu cases, but even then they may never find their loved ones and the financial cost is often too high for them to see the case through to the end. Indeed the vast majority of these cases are never solved, and even those that are can lead to frustration and heartache, as the person they are seeking does not want to be found and will often merely vanish again.

Denizens of Sanya

In the meantime there are few places these families can turn to for help or support, and the police are generally indifferent to their plight, often looking the other way or downplaying what has happened. These families are left struggling in a quagmire of uncertainty of what has happened to their loved ones, financial difficulty, and often the shame that has come to them by having a family member opt out of society. For those who have disappeared, their lives are lived in a kind of limbo, and are typically fraught with hardship and financial woes, but for most of them this is a one way ticket, and few ever come back from the dead. They have made their choice and there is usually no going back.

It is all vaguely spooky and somewhat tragic that these people should want to shun their old lives and take up a ghostly existence. It is hard to imagine what must be going through their minds or the decisions they have made or the circumstances that have forced them into this self-imposed exile. It is also rather baffling that in such a crowded city these people could so completely erase themselves and live out shadow lives right in one of the biggest cities in the world, that they could so totally melt away without a trace. It really puts a sinister tint on the bright lights of this mega city, that we can look out at its countless glittering lights which hide within them this underworld of lost souls.