The Evaporated People in Contemporary Japanese Literature
Each year in Japan, thousands of people disappear. They haven’t been kidnapped. They haven’t been murdered. (Japan has one of the lowest murder rates in the world. An American is almost twenty-seven times more likely to become a homicide victim.)
They are the evaporated—the johatsu.
First, let’s acknowledge that the evocative noun probably creates an exoticism that isn’t entirely deserved. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, there were more than 56,000 Americans over the age of 18 with active missing person records at the end of 2019. Nevertheless, Japanese privacy laws make the johatsu almost impossible to track down. The government relies on citizens to register in the cities where they live; if they don’t comply, there is no official record of where they are.
Catering to people who want to disappear has become a niche business in Japan. Movers help would-be johatsu vanish into neighborhoods where they can live anonymously—often hotbeds of activity by the Japanese mafia or Yakuza.
According to Léna Mauger, a French journalist who brought the johatsu to the attention of the Western world with her book, The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs, people who disappear do so most often because they are ashamed. A student fails an important exam. A woman falls in love with another man. A breadwinner loses his job.
The people left behind often never find out why their loved one has vanished.
Manazuru opens with the protagonist, Kei, taking a unplanned trip to Manazuru, a tiny coastal town in Kanagawa Prefecture of only eight or so thousand residents.
Her husband disappeared “without warning twelve years ago.”
The language Kawakami uses to describe Kei’s complex feelings is evocative and haunting:
After Rei’s disappearance, I had no place. I still didn’t know where to channel what I felt. When the path ahead is still unformed, we lose all sense of our location. The fear in me resembled the inability to tell upstream from downstream, to perceive the direction the water was going.
Only the things we are still holding on to can vanish into the past. If we no longer have it, it can’t be lost that way. Can’t vanish anywhere. Nonexistent, it is nonetheless unable, moreover, to go.
I’ve heard that when you start to dream of what you’ve lost, it means the hurt is healing… I never dream of Rei, even now.
More than a decade in, she is no longer in real mourning. Like a Penelope who will never welcome Odysseus home, what she needs most is closure. Is her husband still alive? Why did he leave? “Did [her] husband want to die? Or did he disappear because he wanted to live?” Will she ever see him again? Maybe most importantly, has the time come to let go of her grief?
Sometimes, of late, I forget him. It’s strange, when his presence used to be so thick. When his sudden departure only made his presence thicker.
Perhaps what most holds Kei back is that she considers first her husband and now their teenaged daughter extensions of herself—“I had thought we were family, the borders between our bodies indistinct, Momo and Rei [her husband] and I, the three of us mingling, dissolving.” Kei is unaccountably unable to say Rei’s name even during their marriage, and Kawakami reinforces Kei’s loss of self by exploring Kei and Rei as mirrors of each other.
Kei compares Rei at the beginning of their relationship to “the retreating tide.” “Try to stand your ground,” she says, “still it draws your body in.” With Rei, she “sensed [her]self blurring.” After they marry and have a child together, “even then” her body “blurs.” When he leaves, he destroys the part of her he has, figuratively taken into himself. (There’s probably something Freudian to be said about the way Kei, a woman, feels that she has entered Rei, a man.) Later, when Kei reads Rei’s diary after he leaves, she finds it “sickening” because it forces her to acknowledge “he is separate from [her].”
After birth, Kei “did not regard [her daughter Momo] as her own person. Admitting that Momo is a separate self is terrifying: “It was all right as long as I told myself I was nothing but my own body, but when I let my feelings shift toward Momo’s infant weight in my hands, I became terribly afraid.” Twelve years after her husband’s disappearance, she’s now losing another part of herself—her teenaged daughter is becoming an autonomous person.
Being the wife of a johatsu has inalterably shaped Kei, her expectations for her life, and her relationships with other people. Even twelve years later, it still calls her self into question.
A Man takes up the johatsu from a different angle as an attorney tries to track down the true identity of a client’s dead husband. A Man is about the things that drive people to evaporate—and, on a philosophical level, what questions the life of a johatsu raises about the nature of identity.
Author Keiichiro Hirano claims his novel is inspired by a man he met in a bar—Kido-san, the namesake of the novel’s protagonist. The man introduces himself as one person, then eventually claims to be another. “Do you understand what it’s like to be honest through lies?” the man asks.
Daisuké Taniguchi is the novel’s most important character, though he dies just a few pages in. His mourning widow, Rié, invites his estranged brother to her home. He notices the picture of her late husband on the Buddhist altar: “That isn’t Daisuké,” he reveals.
Rié believes she must now uncover her husband’s true identity. She makes arrangements for a lawyer, Akira Kido, to investigate on her behalf.
Kido soon begins to take the case a little too seriously, to ask himself what it would be like to change identities. Pretending for one night to be someone else, he “feel[s] out the comfort of his new life as though trying on a garment or test-driving a car.” Maybe this will be his new hobby: “synchronizing himself with the life story of another so as to vicariously inhabit their inner world.”
Hirano also raises the role of larger societal problems that make disappearance so tempting to Kido—presumably to an entire group of Japanese. Kido suffers from “a kind of existential anxiety” that has more to do with “Japan’s dark prospects,” the narrator tells us, than they do with his own identity.
Eventually, Kido discovers that “Daisuké Taniguchi,” Rié’s husband, is actually Makoto Hara, the son of a notorious murderer running away from what he considers his tainted family—recall how many of the johatsu disappear because of feelings of shame. With the help of a forger, he has bought Taniguchi’s place on the Taniguchi family register so he could assume a different identity. (A family register is an important document in Japanese culture and government, keeping official track, for example, of births and deaths.)
One of the-character-formerly-known-as-Makoto’s old friends describes him with a notably moving metaphor:
Makoto was, let’s say… Well, you ever heard of gender identity disorder? You know where your body and mind just don’t match up? For Makoto it was something like that. Yup. Like someone’s stuffed you into this disgusting mascot suit and you’re stuck in there for your whole life.
By disappearing, Makoto Hara is able to discover his own identity.
Manazuru and, to a certain extent, A Man, both end without a neat resolution. Perhaps that is because, by their very nature, the johatsu and the social conditions that create them are unresolved. We can make guesses about whys and hows, but, as Kido reflects, “It might very well be hubris to believe that you could understand a person’s true thoughts and feelings even when looking straight at them.”
Simone, Alina. “Japan’s ‘Evaporated People’ Have Become an Obsession for This French Couple” at pri.org.
More by Hiromi Kawakami: The Nakano Thrift Shop; Parade; People from My Neighborhood; Record of a Night Too Brief; Strange Weather in Tokyo (also published in translation as The Briefcase); The Ten Loves of Nishino