What causes people to decide that they have had enough of their way of life and the only solution for them is to ‘disappear’ abandoning their lives, careers, homes, and families with no intention of returning? Well, that is what is happening in Japan where companies are helping those people who simply want to vanish.
There is a word in Japanese known as “jouhatsu” which translated means “evaporation”, but it also applies to individuals who intentionally vanish into thin air and keep their whereabouts hidden for years, with some never returning to their former life.
Whilst it is not uncommon for people to disappear all over the world, Japan is likely to be more widespread than most other places due to cultural considerations. Like the taboo topic of suicide, jouhatsu is distasteful and almost unthinkable in Japanese society as a subject to discuss in regular conversation. The disappearing acts stem from Japan’s pressure to save “face”. Incredibly, you will not find an office of missing persons in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people go missing each year, according to the Missing Persons Search Assistance Association of Japan, a non-profit dedicated to assisting jouhatsu families.
Why do people want to disappear?
The word jouhatsu first appeared in the 1960s and it was first used to describe people who chose to leave abusive relationships rather than go through the embarrassment of the traditional divorce process at the time. But it soon included people with depression, addiction, sexual impropriety, all requiring a need for solitude. It’s also been used to get away from domestic abuse, gambling debts, religious cults, stalkers, bosses, and complicated family circumstances in the past.
The humiliation of losing a job, being divorced, or even failing an exam can drive people to vanish. Ian Fleming in the James Bond book, “You Only Live Twice” mentions students disappearing rather than face the embarrassment of failing their exams. Their solution was to commit suicide in the ‘Garden of Death’, a place James Bond has to investigate.
In real life and in certain instances, being jouhatsu is simply a way to start over. They can leave their former homes, occupations, families, identities, and even appearances when they vanish.
When the Japanese economy collapsed in the 1990s, there was a significant increase in jouhatsu and suicide as many salaried workers lost their jobs and/or accrued debts.
In Japan, people who, for whatever reason, decide they don’t want to be identified are referred to as the “maliciously missing” by the police. The police consider that if you are facing a felony trial or prison time, it’s not unusual for people to disappear. In reality, many have staged elaborate deaths to throw the law enforcement agencies off their game (a person who skips out on bail or a criminal running from the law is considered “wanted,” not “missing”).
A thriving Industry?
Businesses that support the jouhatsu are known as “yonige-ya”, which translates to “fly-by-night shops”. These businesses are reasonably easy to locate and have their own websites.
Currently, depending on a variety of factors, a yonige-ya will charge anywhere between $50,000 ($450) (£325) to $300,000 ($2,600) (£1,900) for its services. The number of belongings, the size, whether the move is nocturnal, whether children are being transported, and whether the move is being made to avoid debt collectors are all considerations to consider.
Without the aid of yonige-ya, people have been known to vanish on their own. There are sourcebooks available that can assist people in becoming jouhatsu.
Regardless of their motivations, they seek assistance from companies who can guide them through the process. These clandestine operations are known as “night moving” programmes, a reference to the secrecy surrounding jouhatsu training. They will assist individuals who wish to isolate themselves from their lives in a safe manner, as well as provide accommodation in hidden locations.
Sho Hatori, who formed a night-moving business in the 1990s when Japan’s economic bubble went on a significant downturn says, “What we did was help people to start a second life.” He initially assumed that financial ruin would be the only reason for people to leave their troubled lives, but he soon discovered that there were also “social causes” too.
Hiroki Nakamori, a sociologist, has been studying jouhatsu for over a decade. “It’s just easier to evaporate in Japan,” says Nakamori. Missing people are able to withdraw money from ATMs without being flagged, and their family members are unable to view surveillance footage that could have caught their loved one fleeing. The police will only intervene when a crime or major incident has been proven to have been committed, such as a robbery or an accident. The family’s only option is to hire a private investigator at a high cost or just sit it out. That is everything there is to it.
Where do they go?
The jouhatsu are frequently unable to be located, especially in the context of Japan’s strict privacy laws. The majority of jouhatsu cases are civil in nature, and personal information is not readily accessible.
San’ya, a Tokyo slum that once housed tens of thousands of day labourers, is said to be a safe haven for the jouhatsu. In Osaka, Kamagasaki or Airin-chiku is another neighbourhood where you can live without an ID and is therefore preferred. Since they have cash-paying jobs, these districts are strongholds for the Yakuza (criminal organisations) and so, ideal for people who want to disappear, as most people will not want to go and look for them.
People who have become jouhatsu are often tracked down by detective agencies. They have been found spending time at pachinko parlours (slot machines and pinball) and cheap hotel rooms on occasion, and on other occasions, they have been found dead.
The people who have disappeared
For many of the jouhatsu, feelings of sorrow and remorse linger even after they have left their lives behind.
Sugimoto, a businessman who left his wife and children, says, “I constantly have the impression that I’ve done something wrong.” Sugimoto is currently residing in a house in Tokyo’s residential area.
Saita, the woman who runs the night-moving business where he is being housed, also was a jouhatsu who vanished 17 years ago. “In a way, I’m a missing person – even now,” she says, referring to her disappearance after being in a sexually abusive relationship. She admits that she has various types of clients, all with individual stories to tell, and she never considers any of their circumstances not serious enough.
What of the People who are left behind?
The emotional toll is considerable. They swing back and forth between hope and despair. The abandonment and subsequent quest for their jouhatsu can be intolerable for loved ones who are left behind. The phrase “life in limbo” is often used to explain how families are unable to move on while a loved one remains missing.
When an individual goes missing for an extended period of time, this is referred to as ambiguous loss. There is no closure or resolution to allow people who have been left behind to move on. This is exacerbated by the person’s desire for a happy reunion with their loved one, or even just learning what happened and why the person went missing in the first place.
Varying opinions about whether the missing person is alive or dead will inevitably be a topic of discussion for relatives and friends. This can add to the distress and friction in a relationship or friendships, particularly if a family member is suspected of “contributing to” someone going missing.
Following a disappearance, families can face legal and financial issues. They are frequently responsible for managing and protecting the missing person’s affairs when they are gone, which can be very distressing because they will feel obligated to secure the life they hope their missing loved one will return to.
The missing person returns?
If a missing person is found alive or dead, their families are confronted with a new set of emotions. It is unusual that joy in a reunion is as easy as it seems. Many families are relieved that the individual has been identified, but they are still frustrated. They frequently have unanswered questions, and they might be concerned that the individual will vanish again.
If the individual chooses not to contact them again, other families may feel betrayed, worried, and frustrated. This is particularly true when their family member has been missing for a long time and the police investigation has been closed. Then suddenly they appear. One interviewee described it as “having a stranger in your home,” and said she wasn’t sure whether it was safe to speak about what had happened.
Even if the reconnection is successful, it can present major challenges. Families and lost persons who have returned to their homes receive no help. When young people go missing, they will be referred to local social care, which may result in continuing help for them and their families, but when adults go missing, there is no promise of support until the police have done their job.
More should be done to help families of people who go missing, given the complexity of their needs. Following a disappearance, families may be offered support services that clarify the legal and financial challenges they may face. While such support will not make the pain of losing a loved one go away, it will help to alleviate some of the unforeseen pressures that come with it.