Jouhatsu: Japan’s ‘Evaporated People’

In Japan, tens of thousands of people intentionally disappear every year. They are known as “jouhatsu” or “evaporated people”. These individuals vanish from their established lives, leaving behind homes, jobs, and even families. Their motivations are varied, but often come down to escaping crushing debt, unhappy family situations, or sheer exhaustion with societal pressures.

Kamagasaki Slum: A Refuge for the Disappeared

An up-close, emotive portrait of a Japanese man standing in the middle of Shibuya Crossing. He is dressed in ragged clothes and carries an overly heavy backpack. His face, weathered and sun-beaten, reveals a profound mixture of hope and despair in his eyes. He stares directly ahead, seemingly lost in thought. The background captures the blurred motion of people and the bustling life of Shibuya Crossing, contrasting sharply with the man's stillness. This scene encapsulates a poignant moment, reflecting the man's personal struggles amidst the relentless pace of the city.

One place many evaporated people drift to is the slum of Kamagasaki in Osaka. With cheap accommodation and day labor jobs, this run-down area has become a magnet for those looking to drop out of regular society. Hotels rent rooms for as little as $15 a night. Men stand on street corners waiting for work offers. No one asks questions or cares about your history here.

The slum is home to an estimated 25,000 evaporated people. They assume new names and identities to preserve anonymity. Japan’s strict privacy laws also help. The “disappeared” can access cash from ATMs and avoid being tracked. Police only get involved if an actual crime has been committed. For most evaporated people, families have no recourse but to hire private detectives at great expense, or simply wait and hope their loved one returns.

Masashi Tanaka’s Story

49-year old Masashi Tanaka came to Kamagasaki after a lifetime of abuse. When he went to prison for a drug charge, his mother declared him dead to her. With no safety net left, Tanaka evaporated to the slum for a fresh start. He now lives alone, severed from his painful past.

Another resident, 64-year old Kodama, fled when he lost his job decades ago. He left with barely enough cash for a train ticket to Osaka, assuming he could find work. He never returned home. Over 35 years later, Kodama believes it would be too uncomfortable to reunite with estranged relatives.

“I was sick of the world. But I didn’t have the courage to die,” he admitted. Like many evaporated people, Kodama escaped a hopeless situation through geographical flight. Starting over in anonymity seemed better than suicide.

Cultural Factors

Several aspects of Japanese culture and society drive citizens to become jouhatsu. Experts cite an overbearing work culture, familial expectations, and social shame over perceived failures like job loss or debt. “Evaporating” spares relatives the stigma of suicide. It’s an open secret that thousands disappear every year.

Economic turmoil also swells the ranks of the evaporated. After Japan’s asset bubble burst in the 1990s, many salarymen walked away from crushing debt. Today’s generation faces increased job insecurity and downward mobility, further fueling desire for a clean break.

However, jouhatsu involves deep trade-offs. Ties are severed, lives overturned. Despite the pain or debt left behind, many evaporated people still express regret and longing for lost loved ones. But the prospect of revelation seems more burdensome than disappearance. Once evaporated, most know they can never condense back into their old lives again.

The Challenges of Finding the Jouhatsu

One of the reasons why jouhatsu can disappear so easily is the lack of a comprehensive database of missing persons in Japan. Unlike in some other countries, the police do not have the authority to access the personal information of the jouhatsu, such as their bank accounts, phone records, or social media profiles.

The privacy laws in Japan are very strict, and the families of the jouhatsu cannot access the security footage or the GPS data that might have captured their loved ones on the run.

This makes it very difficult for the families and friends of the jouhatsu to find and reconnect with them, especially if they have no clues or leads about their whereabouts. Some of them resort to hiring private detectives, who charge high fees and often face legal and ethical dilemmas in their investigations.

Others turn to non-profit organizations, such as the Missing Persons Search Support Association of Japan, which provides emotional and practical support to the relatives of the jouhatsu.

Even if the jouhatsu are found, there is no guarantee that they will want to return to their former lives or reconcile with their families. Some of them may have changed their names, appearances, or even personalities, and may have started new relationships or careers in their new locations.

Some of them may have left behind unresolved issues, such as debts, crimes, or conflicts, that make it hard for them to face their past. Some of them may simply prefer their new lives and identities, and may not wish to be disturbed or exposed.

Finding the jouhatsu is not only a matter of locating them, but also of understanding them and respecting their choices. It is a delicate and complex process that involves the emotions, rights, and interests of both the jouhatsu and their families. It is also a challenge that reflects the social and cultural pressures that drive some people to evaporate in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *