The Johatsu: The Evaporated People of Japan
Japan's culture is unmistankingly different from the West and certainly the United States. In this article we will explore some of these differences as well as a phenomenon called the johatsu or the evaporated people. We will look at many of the interconnected cultural points that lead to people wanting to disappear and become johatsu.
Japan - Country of History and Tradition
Japan is as paradoxical as it is colorful. Its culture is a wonderful expression of cutting edge modern society, steeped in tradition that goes back thousands of years. Centuries of isolation created an environment in which many aspects of its culture developed completely unaffected by outside influences, consequently, everything you see in Japan today from Sumo wrestlers to the Kabuki theater, has deep historical and cultural meaning.
In fact in 2008, the Kabuki theatre was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Sumo wrestling on the other hand is a sport with a history going back centuries and containing many ancient traditions and rituals. Even Manga, the famous Japanese comic, is said to originate from scrolls dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries.
From an interpersonal and social norms perspective, Japan differs greatly from the West. Its culture is non-contact and people maintain distinct personal spaces. This means bowing is used instead of shaking hands. Eye contact is frowned upon and considered a sign of disrespect. Japanese society is stratified in accordance to authority, age, familial relationship, friendship, and even lover relationships.
This hierarchal structure is reflected in the honorifics used to address others. Suffixes such as –sama, -san, -chan, -kun and -bō must be used properly to avoid offending those with whom you interact. Even bowing must be done properly. Older members of society are bowed to at a steeper angle than a personal friend. The same goes with those in authority; bowing to a boss is more extreme than to a co-worker.
But there is another aspect to Japanese culture recently surfacing in documentaries and YouTube videos. It is a culture not easily understood by outsiders, especially Westerners. One in which ludicrous fetishes are catered to by businesses and clubs; TV game shows that take absurdity to a whole new level by embarrassing and humiliating the contestants; dozens of vending machines per city block; fashion aficionado Harajuku Girls and the Rockabilly Boys subculture; and obsessively perfect fruit that can be priced in the thousands of dollars.
A Different Culture and a Country of Introverts
Japan is a country of introverts. It is said that although Tokyo is among one of the largest cities in the world, it is also the loneliest. Even when packed, trains are quiet. People cross each other’s paths with barely a glancing look. Casual conversation among fellow travelers or strangers is virtually nonexistent.
Tokyo is the type of city where you can be passed-out drunk in a subway car and no one will bother you, until it’s closing time and security personnel courteously escort you out; where you can go to a Manga café and spend endless hours using the touch screens of the food dispensers without ever speaking or being approached by a waiter or even by other patrons; or go to a bar and quietly drink until closing time while only signaling the bartender to repeat your drink.
In recent years, the Hikikomori Hermits phenomenon is said to affect half a million people, 80% of whom are males. These are those who withdraw from all social ties, including work, friends, schools even hobbies. They typically lock themselves in their bedrooms, spending all their time on the internet, playing video games or watching television.
The reality is, to those Westerners who have either lived or travelled extensively to Japan, these seemingly anomalous behaviors begin to make sense from the perspective that all cultures are different, but ultimately valid. No one culture is superior to another. That attitude places a great deal of cogency to the social norms observed in Japan.
This was exactly my attitude especially after having visited Japan a couple of dozen times over the years. Subsequently, when I came across a book written by French journalist Lena Mauger named The Vanished: The "Evaporated People" of Japan in Stories and Photographs, I was immediately both intrigued and enthralled.
The Johatsu: The Evaporated People
The Evaporated People, known as the johatsu in Japan, are the tens of thousands that disappear without a trace every year. They are those that leave their jobs, studies or families often driven by shame, hopelessness or personal disappointment.
Many women do it to escape domestic violence, especially since laws protecting women from abusive espouses are weak and often not enforced. Others do it to leave gambling debts behind. But mostly they do it as an overriding feeling that the best for them is to leave their old lives behind and start anew.
While most of those who disappear yearly, are either found by the police; by detective agencies hired by their families; turn up dead; or return home on their own, it is estimated that some 20,000 people are never seen again by family, friends or employers. When considering that over a period of ten years, this figure can add up to 200,000 people who have disappeared, this phenomenon represents a substantial impact to society.
For Americans, the notion of someone willfully disappearing is difficult to envisage. In the United States, Social Security numbers make finding people an easy process. Municipal records are available to the public and corporations track consumer purchases and locations. All of this information is available to police and credit sleuths.
This, however, is not the case in Japan, where there are strict laws protecting privacy and it is against the law for police to access ATM transactions or financial records. Also, unlike in the U.S. where there is a database for missing people, none exists in Japan.
Additionally, and equally important there exists a society beneath Japan’s society; an underworld not visible to the casual observer. There are cities considered ghettos, such as Sanya and Kamagasaki where people can disappear. These are areas largely run by the Japanese mafia known as yakuza and where no one needs an identity card or government papers to rent a room. Where society’s exiles can find cheap hotels and one-room apartments, sometimes with no toilets or windows, but where the johatsu can melt away into the local culture.
But best of all, they can find surreptitious work in a thriving informal local economy where they can receive payment in cash for legal or illegal activities. No questions asked.
A Good Friend in Japan
In my previous professional life, I worked for a company generating a fair amount of business in Japan. We had a TV spokesperson, whom I will call Daiki Akiyama (not his real name), who starred in a DIY television show in which he would instruct his audience how to do arts and craft projects. He often worked with leather in making belts, handbags and wallets. He also worked with other materials such as wood, metal, foamboard or fabric.
Akiyama-San used our products in his TV shows, and we paid him a handsome fee. He got his start in TV while living in Los Angeles when he was young. He acted as an extra and played bit parts in a couple of war movies. In his mid to late twenties, he moved back to Japan and found work in television. Eventually, getting his own show.
We were fortunate to have him as a spokesperson for our brand, not only because of the fit between his show and our products, but also his English and knowledge of American culture was excellent. Over the years, we became friends, not just business associates. In fact, when his son married a local Tokyo woman, I was invited to the wedding.
After I moved to Panama to teach, he and his wife came to visit in 2004 during a cruise they both took which ended in the Canal Zone. Later, when I again changed jobs to a teaching position at a Beijing university, I visited him and his family in Tokyo. Earlier this year, after reading Lena Mauger’s book, I emailed him in order to catch up but mentioned “The Evaporated” and inquired about his opinion.
Since we hadn’t been in touch for a couple of years, I was surprised to hear his son had left his wife and had actually disappeared for a short period of time. It seemed it all happened overnight. Apparently, he had been planning the move for some time, and had received help from a type of business known as a yonige-ya, or “fly-by-night shop.”
These are companies that for a fee, help the johatsu obtain burner cellular phones; fake IDs; find a place to stay; basically disappear into Japan’s void. They will even help with the actual moving of personal possessions. Sometimes, all of this for a few hundred dollars.
In the case of Akiyama-San, his son seemed to have had second thoughts and returned to his job and his wife a week later.
The Need to Disappear - Salarymen - Senpai and Kōhai
When I asked Akiyama-San, why his son felt he needed to disappear, he wrote me a long email that was more like a college paper on the pressures of Japanese society, than directly speaking about his son. This was very much in line with the reluctance Japanese people have about directly complaining about their misfortunes.
He told me that in Japan, especially in a big city like Tokyo there are a lot of reasons to disappear. In fact, the hikikomori are nothing more than a less extreme version of a johatsu. Both suffer from the same underlying social affliction: a culture that is extremely difficult on people.
Even the suicide rate which ranks second highest in the world, can be attributed to this type of social isolation, loneliness, and despair typical in the Japanese culture. For many, an honorable suicide is ultimately the best approach to exit a life filled with indignities. People often point to the practice of the Samurai of committing “seppuku” or disembowelment; or the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War with a certain degree of acceptance.
Akiyama-San added that when you are a salaryman, life can be an absolute torture. I took it he was indirectly speaking about his son. He said, these men often work until late at night for a very basic salary. An extremely long commute full of torment. But worst of all, they face a work environment in which the senpai or higher status person can hold the kôhai or underling over the fire at will.
Senpais can yell at kōhais in front of co-workers for the minutest infraction as a way of making an example out of them. Kōhais are always expected to show deference to senpais; open doors; give up their seats for them; in elevators, they must ask the senpais for the floor they are going and push the proper floor buttons for them; at drinking parties they must pour senpai's beers; finally, they cannot leave a party until the senpai says the gathering is over.
In essence, it is a relationship of subservience that salarymen must endure their entire working hours. For those readers who watched the 1993 movie Rising Sun or read the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, you will have somewhat of an understanding how this social system works.
Bias and Discrimination
In Japan there is an adage that says: “The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.” At work, a salarymen must conform or face unbearable social pressure. As one of the most homogenius countries on earth, deviance is always met with resistance. Conformity in Japan is expected in the way people dress; behave; speak. You can never be yourself. You must always follow the crowd.
As Akiyama-San said; “Imagine working in this environment 12 hours a day, after which a long and lonely train ride back to your home, awaits you.”
The reality is that it is not only the male salarymen facing constant societal pressure. Women have it quite rough as well. Japan is a country with no laws against discrimination. Employers can seek and hire applicants based on sex, age, race, religion, creed even blood type.
In fact there are very few women top managers in Japan. In a 2015 Quartz article with a headline that read: “Japan promised to pay firms for promoting women to senior jobs. Not one took up the offer,” tells of companies’ reticence to hire women into management roles, even when the government offered hefty bonuses. When asked, company representatives responded they feared being looked down upon by the companies they did business with if they hired women managers.
Women often face discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace with no legal recourse. Becoming pregnant while employed can get a woman fired or demoted. In the workplace, women are constantly exposed to sexual advances by men, specially managers. Oftentimes they end up submitting out of fear of retribution. In fact, there are hotels all throughout Tokyo that cater to the mid-afternoon “boss and secretary” guests, by offering by-the-hour rates and few staff, for added privacy to the paramours.
When I used to travel to Tokyo, I would take the bus from Narita Airport to the Keisei bus station and stay at a hotel nearby considered a “travelling salesman's” hotel. A relatively inexpensive but very typically Japanese hotel, in which all amenities were self-service and a la carte. The television set; in-room telephone; snack vending machine; all took tokens the guests could purchase at the front desk.
To my surprise the first time I stayed there, I found the small hotel also seconded as a place for the bosses’ mid-day tryst. Every day at just after 12:00 PM couples made up of fifty-something men with twenty-something women would begin to come through. A quick stop at the front desk by the men, while the women stood waiting by the door of the elevator, assured a quick and private trip to their room.
Blood Type B is a Problem - Ascription Versus Achievement
Bias in Japan is so widespread, even blood types can be subjected to discrimination. In 2017, the Daily Beast published an article titled: Un-True Blood: Japan’s Weird Taste for Discrimination Against ‘Type Bs.’ The article goes on to explain how this form of discrimination stems from the superstition that there is a correlation between blood types and personality traits, and type B blood yields the worst of all behavioral qualities.
The article quotes Psychology Professor Shigeyuki Yamaoka, who has spent years debunking the myth, as saying: “But even in a country like Japan where roughly 98 percent of the population is the same ethnicity, people still find a way to discriminate and group people into convenient molds.”
Companies notoriously segregate candidates and employees by blood type and other superfluous criteria to such a point, that the Ministry of Health and Labor issued a guide line instructing employers not to ask candidates’ blood type, birthday, or horoscope signs at interviews.
This idea that certain blood types endow behavioral or character qualities to people, seems to fall in line with Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner seminal study on cultures in which they identified a set of social behaviors they called the achievement vs. ascription cultural dimension.
In achievement cultures people are judged on what they have accomplished, their past record and the perception of what they can achieve in the future. Ascription, on the other hand, means that status is attributed by birth, kinship, gender, age, interpersonal connections, or educational titles – and as in the case of Japan, blood type as well.
This particular cultural dimension is also apparent in Japan’s attitude toward education in which a great deal of weight is given to the infamous pre and post high school entrance exams established by the government in 1947. Commonly known as juken jigoku, or entrance exam hell, both these tests are meant to determine which students will get to go to the best high schools and universities.
While this might seem as a good way to measure achievement, the reality is that the scores attained in these tests will follow the recipients for the rest of their lives. Not getting into a good high school means not going to a good university, which in turn means not being hired by the best companies.
Companies in Japan only look at the universities to which a candidate attended, not the grades; extracurricular activities; volunteer work; sports activities; even the basic idea of redemption following a poor performance is never a consideration.
These degrees from highly sought-after colleges will follow employees for the rest of their careers, as decisions on promotions or salary increases will always be made by putting heavy emphasis on titles, heritage, networks and prestigious organizations with which a person is associated.
Japanese culture is such, the phenomenon of the johatsu is easily understood. Fear of failure; gambling debts; inability to lose face; peer pressure; an unbending culture. Whatever the cause, the decision of melting away or evaporating is one that thousands make, for which there is no coming back.
All cultures are different and my attitude has always been and continues to be one of respect, but also of celebration that we live in such interesting and diverse world.
Of course, Japan is a great country. Their accomplishments over the years have been admirable. I was extremely lucky and thankful for having had the opportunity to go there many times and experience a truly amazing nation and culture first hand. I am privileged to have met people like Daiki Akiyama-San, Chieko Watanabe-San (also not her real name) - his business partner and later his wife, the people working at our then joint-venture partnership in Tokyo and everyone else I met over the years.
Disclosure: For the purpose of presenting the reader with viable and credible information on johatsus and Japanese culture, I paraphrased and added a lot of information to what my friend Akiyama-San originally told me. I sent him copies of this article's draft and asked for his approval and permission to write about what we discussed; for which he said yes.