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Johatsu — “evaporated people”

Killing time while waiting for The Wandering Monk to arrive and begin the foundation project, I found something absolutely fascinating.

Johatsu. A Japanese word meaning “evaporated people.”

Not dead. Not suspiciously missing. But people who’ve chosen to disappear out of their existing identities into new, perhaps off-grid ones.

A French couple have been tracking this phenomenon for years and now have published a book: The Vanished: The “evaporated people” of Japan in Stories and Photographs.

PRI has done a story on the johatsu and the French pair who became obsessed with them, as has Business Insider.

Oddly, it turns out that in highly regulated, highly conformist, high-tech Japan, it’s actually easier to step out of an old life and assume a new identity than it is here in the Land of the Free.


  1. rochesterveteran
    rochesterveteran May 1, 2017 9:39 am

    I “disappeared” for a time after I got out of the service back in 1979. My family knew where I was in the general sense, somewhere out west, but other than that, I lived the life of a drifter. It was pretty liberating!

  2. jed
    jed May 1, 2017 10:09 am

    I’m pretty amazed at that. At least initially. It begins to make a bit more sense when I try to think more deeply about the culture, about which, I admit, I don’t know a lot. But the concept of saving face … maybe there’s a point where the only way to do that seems to be to disappear. That part that does mostly surprise me is how difficult it is to track these people down, as I would expect TPTB to frown on it quite seriously.

    But also, sometimes the best way to disappear is to get lost in the crowd, and Japan certainly has crowds.

  3. larryarnold
    larryarnold May 1, 2017 11:00 am

    Wow. I wouldn’t think of Japan having room for anyone to disappear, except, as Jed says, in crowds. But if TPTB rely on folks to regularly check in, they may not have much of an apparatus to find those who don’t.

    And who would imagine that Japan has such strict privacy laws?

    I’ve also noticed that the more anal a bureaucracy is, the easier it is to game. “They” need all the information you provide, even if it’s false.

  4. M Jarvis
    M Jarvis May 1, 2017 12:01 pm

    That whole ‘face’ concept is an odd beast… in college next door neighbor had something like failed a test or girlfriend dumped him, or whatever… he ate a cup of salt…

    By the time the ambulance arrived there was nothing they could do for him… his thoat just kept swelling up and he choked himself to death…

  5. Comrade X
    Comrade X May 1, 2017 1:02 pm

    Eating salt sounds like a painful way to go.

  6. Claire
    Claire May 1, 2017 1:05 pm

    Holy sh*t, M Jarvis. What an agonizing way to go!

    I also find it amazing that Japanese people can disappear themselves so easily. I presume it’s still not an easy life, but it’s interesting that the government isn’t set up to track them and/or make them extra miserable. At first I thought the whole concept of johatsu might be something westerners were exaggerating for yellow-journalistic effect. But apparently not.

  7. david
    david May 1, 2017 2:28 pm

    How odd, they have so much more privacy than we do here in the ‘land of the free’. I suspect that if I tried this here, it would trigger some kind of alert, the NSA would troll my entire life looking for something to suspect me of doing, and the FBI would put ‘trackers’ on my entire former life. And once they found me they’d think I’d been in ISIS training or something.

    Not that it can’t be done, it’s just that we have such a ‘germanic’ kind of government that everything has to be documented thrice, stored in 5 places, with 9 agencies keeping track of progress and watching for my blips on the radar. But a friend of mine once met a guy who called himself ‘Leo’, who had done precisely that. He walked away from everything, carried no ID and worked as a handyman/janitor/etc. for cash.

    Of course, it was before there was an e-Verify, but still, it should be do-able. You just can’t even call anyone on a phone, because that call will be traced, and if you want to mail a letter you’d better wear a Nixon mask or something when you go to the mailbox, because that’ll be filmed. And in many cities, you’ll be tracked wherever you go by facial recognition just because you don’t show up in the database. Much harder to do here I think.

  8. Claire
    Claire May 2, 2017 6:44 am

    Egads, Shel. Not that’s a creepy tale.

  9. ellendra
    ellendra May 2, 2017 7:48 am

    “But if TPTB rely on folks to regularly check in, they may not have much of an apparatus to find those who don’t.”

    There was an article a few years back that illustrated just how little the Japanese government checks up on people. A journalist wanted to interview some of Japan’s supercentenarians, but couldn’t find most of them. After some investigating, it was found that a significant number of them had actually died before reaching 100, but because the deaths hadn’t been reported they were assumed to be alive. Sometimes it was because their family members wanted to keep their benefits rolling in, but more often it was simply because no one wanted to disrespect their privacy or independence by checking up on them.

    (Assuming I recall correctly.)

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