The Vanished: Voluntary Disappearance in Japan

By Léna Mauger and Stéphane Remael

Sample translation by Brian Phalen

 

 

Prologue

 

It was my first big kid bike, with racing handlebars. I used to practice mastering my endurance around the neighborhood. Before long I would experiment traveling alone, thrilled by how far I could go. Within an hour of pedaling, beaten by the wind, I would cross the Belgian border. There was still a border patrol at the time, but I avoided it by taking rarely-used back roads. Who would think to question a ten-year-old boy?

            Without difficulty I would reach uncharted territory, a neighboring country with different rules, another currency, a strange language, and, within reach for a few hours, a new life, free from the one before. I had chosen as a shelter a nice stone ruin in the middle of a wheat field. I used to remain hidden there for hours wondering who would find me if I died.

            At school I had a knack for disappearing. I used to discretely climb up a tree. If I reached the leaved branches quickly, no one would think to look for me up there. I would often spend recess observing the insects, reading, studying the behavior of my classmates, breathing. And sometimes I would come down only at the end of the day, long after the end-of-recess bells rang.

            While growing up I regularly distanced myself from my ordinary life in order to live another one, silent and untouched. As a teen I took to the road with my camera, by bike, then by motorcycle and by plane, to sink as deeply as possible into the unknown parts of the world and of myself.

            All too soon it came time to get in line and abandon this freedom for the routine of social conventions. I took a hard look at my life and came to a pretty clear vision of the meaning of our city lives: there wasn’t one.

            I was losing it. I was wavering, torn between a desire to end it all and a fear of causing the suffering of those around me. I refused to inflict the guilt of my death on them. It would be better to abandon everything, to take a long trip and never come back. To disappear, making the most of life for a few more months, killing time on the other side of the world. Then covering my tracks without leaving any clues. It seemed like a feasible idea. I would leave in autumn.

            Seasons passed, my plan remained buried.

            And, just as water penetrates the earth, love returned to nourish me. I rediscovered the will to live. I returned to the road without slipping away.

            Sometime later, hot on the trail of the vanished in Japan, I confronted those who had changed their identities and shut the door on their lives. While investigating with Léna from the north to the south of the archipelago, I realized how attached I was to what I had so badly wished to flee.

 

Stéphane Remael

1

 

Through a moonless night, a shadow glides under the occasional streetlamp. Tokyo’s northern suburb drifts off to sleep in the icy air, lulled by the humming of the trains. Backed by skyscrapers, it amounts to small houses, deserted sidewalks, and some unchained bikes leaning against covered cars. The ideal place to hide, disappear, escape. At the bend of an alley stands an impersonal, cubical white-cement building, the frontispiece crossed by ideograms indicating its activity. “All-Purpose Waste Collection Company.” Men are busy unloading objects from three vans parked in front of the first-floor warehouse.

            One of them, small and stocky, comes forward in the darkness (“The boss should be here soon.”), slips away, then returns a half-hour later to show us an outdoor staircase leading up to the boss’s headquarters. A mess of papers, old computers, typewriters, walkie-talkies… The boss is hidden behind stacks of files. Suddenly he stands, slim body, serious face, and leans forward to introduce himself: “Kazufumi Kuni.” He points to some fold-out stools and has a brief, incomprehensible exchange with my interpreter.

            Then, from an envelope nestled on a shelf, he ceremoniously pulls some yellowed pages, and sets down one by one various documents and letters as well as an identity card. Kazufumi, born April 16, 1943. There is ambition behind his eyes in the youthful photo. But these documents portray a man who no longer exists. Since then, the face has wrinkled, the last name has transformed. A phonetic mutilation at once a scar and metaphor for his life.

            That man left his home one day never to return again. Like thousands of Japanese people, men, women, entire families, Kazufumi chose to live as one of the country’s stowaways. Though he was convinced the world was his oyster. At age sixty-six, he can look back on a well-constructed past. With a degree from a prestigious Japanese university, he worked as a broker, in charge of managing high-risk transactions.

            “I was a topsellerman!” he exclaims in English. Elegant and up-and-coming, the man had one project after another. That is, until the day that, after a bad investment, he registered a sudden loss of 400 million yen (over $3 million). His clients harassed him, his bosses blamed him for the losses. The fallen broker felt like he was on the brink of ruin. From his innermost depths rose an imperious force that engulfed and destroyed him. It was not a matter of strength but of deep-seated shame. One morning in 1970, without notice or a plan, he took the train and vanished. Pure and simple.

            At first he hid in a working-class neighborhood of Tokyo, at the home of an old university classmate. For several weeks the two men, perfect strangers, shared a small apartment. Cloistered, Kazufumi went silent and began his disappearance.

            Wandering lead him into the cracks of the capital where, like everywhere else, unscrupulous employers can be found. Needing to ensure his survival, he accepted humble work, making some 8,000 yen, or $65, a day, just enough to cover his basic needs. From mason to laborer, dishwasher to waiter in a cabaret, he toughened “physically and psychologically.” This life taught him to become a vagabond, a man without a past. “I didn’t think of a new life, I ran away, that’s all. Running away isn’t glorious. No money or social status. The important thing is to stay alive.”

            His loved ones did not forget about him, though. He got wind that his panic-stricken father was leading an investigation in the mountains where he grew up, distributing missing person flyers, even hiring a private investigator. The debt collectors also looked for him and threatened his father before finally giving up. One cannot take a missing person to court.

            After years of wandering, he anonymously rented an apartment, and, in a newspaper, discovered that there are companies that can connect individuals with benri-ya, or jacks-of-all-trade.

            These small businesses provide all sorts of services: from plant-watering to dog-walking, even evictions. At thirty-eight, inspired by this model, Kazufumi established a modest company, the All-Purpose Waste Collection Company. The former child prodigy got an official “waste collection” license, authorizing him to transport anything and everything. Starting with nothing, he began with dogs that had been run over, stinking, rotting corpses eaten away at by vermin. The things people ignore as they walk past on the street. Overcoming his own disgust, he resigned to do this dirty work. He had to survive. The experience taught him not to shy away from anything. Kazufumi later took on dangerous industrial and electronic waste and continued his macabre business with drowned corpses, torn up in putrid human fragments. “We are the dregs of society so we don’t have a conscience.”

            But this vanished man developed another line of work, just as dark and clandestine, helping others vanish. At the beginning he did not know anything about the circumstances of his future clients, men and women each forced to flee the world. He never had to advertise, they came to him by word of mouth and a literally magnetic name: “All-Purpose Waste Collection Company.” When people called referencing a “move,” Kazufumi understood the meaning of the message. But he always interrogated the runaways thoroughly. “The reasons that force people to vanish are complex. I don’t take people I think look shady. My father was a cop and taught me not to cross the line.”

            These days, the boss refuses many requests, but when an agreement is made, everything is carried out very quickly. Unusual movers appear at twilight equipped with black blankets and curtains. As quickly as possible, the windows are shrouded, the furniture is packed. Generally, the clients claim they are bringing “next to nothing,” but at the last minute they want to bring everything, even appliances. Kazufumi and his men work as discreetly and quickly as possible.

            The boss recommends women and children go under cover the day before. On the day of the disappearance, only the men are there to vacate. Sometimes entire companies are moved. Under these conditions, the team must be all the more vigilant. His men swap their leather shoes for sneakers and try to spot possible hidden microphones. To cover their tracks, they circulate false addresses and destinations as clues. During the 1990s, a time of great economic crisis, the more paranoid clients would arm themselves with knives and sticks. “On D-Day, it’s really tense, they’re on edge and are scared creditors will find them. Sometimes there are fights, chases…”

            A man enters the office, whispers in the boss’s ear. The walls are covered in sketches: floor-plans of houses, obscure scribbles and sketches of maps traced by hand. “I mostly move people from Tokyo to Tokyo. In Japan, we aren’t as well documented as where you’re from. It’s easier to disappear.”

            But Kazufumi refuses to give me any names. “I erased them all from my memory,” he sighs, delicately closing the big, yellowed envelope with his wrinkled hands. All the same, through the half-open door he mutters, “Go to the springs of Mount Fuji…”

2

 

Piercing the air like an arrow, the high-speed train hurtles west of Tokyo between a peaceful Pacific Ocean and Mount Fuji, that eternal subject of veneration for the Japanese. All over the world, this perfect cone with a white peak, dormant volcanic mountain, symbolizes the Land of the Rising Sun. In the aisle, a hostess in a close-fitting suit goes up and down with sweets and, like on a plane, indicates the exits with a delicate gesture. The Japanese tell how on the day of the inauguration, the first passengers left their shoes on the platform before stepping into the car. They were very surprised when they were not there upon arrival.

            A few minutes before reaching the city of Atami, our interpreter motions to us to gather our things. On a rainy day in a Parisian café, I met this pudgy, nearly-retired filmmaker who was recommended by a friend. I was looking for someone who could facilitate my reporting in Japan. For hours, Guy energetically described his wife’s country: feminine gentleness, elegance of movement, feeling of security, efficiency of public transportation, and all the little things that, for him, make Japanese living so serene.

            Night was already falling on the place de Clichy when he briefly mentioned a strange phenomenon: every year, thousands of Japanese people leave their homes and never return. Some take their own lives, the bodies are never found. Others become shadows. Violent death or oblivion: no other solution. No country in the world, he said, has as many vanished people. Enduring vagabondage, absence, fragility, in an archipelago of 128 million people seemed like a crazy and exhilarating challenge. I discussed it later that night with Stéphane, who was just as fascinated. And there we were, two months later, foreign to this enigmatic culture, our only compass being our guide’s perseverance in the face of shadows...

            The seaside resort of Atami, with its view of Mount Fuji, is famous for its onsen, or volcanic hot springs. The tradition began in seventeenth-century feudal Japan and persisted through the years. Collective imagination took over to associate hot springs and the destiny of vanished people. Books, films and plays tell the adventures of runaways coming to shed their pasts in the sulfurous steam of the baths before being reborn elsewhere. The Japanese term for these missing people, johatsu, literally means evaporated.

            On this autumn Saturday, the neighborhood near the train station bustles all corners. Women in kimonos hand out advertisements for the hot springs. Behind their counters, old women sell the town’s specialties: dried fish and kidney bean cakes. One serves grilled eel. Her bottom warmed by a stove, she happily discusses the Fuji baths. “You have to go visit the ones at the Taikanso hotel, up on the hill. They are Atami’s oldest, they were constructed in 1928. Go back up the street and turn left after the bridge…”

            “And the johatsu, the evaporated. Are there any in Atami?”

            With an about-turn, the grandmother interrupts the conversation, suddenly silent, concerned only with rubbing herself to keep warm near the heat. At the police station, the police won’t be any chattier. At the Taikanso hotel, management sends an engineer in a worker’s blue uniform who anxiously takes me aside. “There are no johatsu here,” he says, his eyes on the look-out for eavesdroppers. “We used to be in need of laborers, so we’d hire every candidate. But now we find out about the person, where they come from, their family…” With that, he turns and walks away.

            With its twisting streets, its industrial port, its concrete pier and its roughcast-stripped hotels, the seaside resort of Atami is at once like both Brest and Palavas-les-Flots. Quaint and languid, it does not exude mystery. Guy chose it for its springs but cannot find the trace of a missing people. And everywhere we go, my curiosity about the johatsu arouses the same unease. “But we’re a respectable establishment!” the manager of a bath protests. “It’s just a legend,” dismisses another. Guy excuses them: “The johatsu are a taboo subject, people are ashamed to talk about it.” This wall of silence intensifies my fears: would the phenomenon be as hazy as it is sulfurous? Can someone really vanish from the modern world today?

            A hotel manager, hunched behind his desk, finally provides some information: “Maybe Doctor Uchida, the physician of the springs, could help you…” This Doctor Uchida runs a community clinic in the center of the little town. In the entryway, thirty-something pairs of shoes, all small sizes, indicate a children’s day. In the crowded anteroom, visitors can expect an hour wait. The doctor sees his patients in his office, a sanitized room where the nurses bustle about. In a green smock, mask on his face, he expresses himself simply and frankly: “People come here because the springs of Mount Fuji have been famous for centuries. They rarely kill themselves after their bath. They generally roam around the city for a few days.” In a nurse’s arms, a child whose chest is being listened to starts to cry, imitated immediately by another. Doctor Uchida raises his voice over their cries. “Some johatsu find work in the ryokan [“inns”], as cleaning staff, for example. It’s no secret that the springs attract missing people, dishonored people, criminals… The locals haven’t forgotten Kazuko Fukuda’s escape. The murderess had roamed around for about fifteen years after killing her colleagues, and the police traced her to the Atami springs. It was a scandal…” A colleague loses patience at his side. “If I were you, I would go to the baths that are open day and night, near Shizuoka.”

            Shizuoka means “calm hill.” Although it is closer to Mount Fuji, the city is hardly charming. Its seventy million inhabitants live in a world of warehouses and high-rise blocks in the center of which a brand new block stands out: the Hananoyu Onsen. In this enormous sanctuary of leisure and consumption, a soft carpet leads to restaurants, video games and movie theaters arranged around the baths. This paradise blossoms two hours from Tokyo for the inhabitants of the capital who cannot wait to bring their families there for a weekend trips.

            The manager, Mr. Taruno Uchino, is proud of his temple of well-being and wants to give us a tour himself. Impeccably dressed in his polished shoes, he stresses the “heated marble” floors, the “salt and sand” massages, the “state-of-the-art” sauna and the restaurant menus. Relaxed among the red velvet cushions of an alcove, he boasts again of the benefits of his establishment. We must put an end to his litany. “Have you ever dealt with the johatsu?”

            Taruno Uchino chokes on his tea. “Johatsu? Here? Uh…” He hesitates, for a while. “We often have people on their own, in a family crisis, that, yes. They leave their home and don’t know where to go. The advantage here is that they don’t really risk running into anybody they know. And we are open twenty-four hours a day.”

            “What are their profiles?”

            “I don’t know, it’s none of my business.”

            Mr. Uchino sits up and smoothes out his suit. “What’s certain is that our treatments are a good remedy for lost souls.” We return to Tokyo with hardly any notes.

 

4 – Hashi

       Vanished at age twenty-six

 

“The mud seeped into my shoes, I move ahead slowly, I talk to the trees. I imagine the telephone that rings in the empty living room, my furious boss, my wife in tears. And then my father, pragmatic as always, who has surely already hired a detective. Apartment searched, mail opened: what does the detective think, other than that I am a weak man?

            I walk for two days, my feet muddy, my clothes damp, a pit in my stomach every time I hear an animal. A forest at night is a terrible thing. I got off the train at the foot of Mount Fuji and disappeared into the Aokigahara forest, attracted by the legends, lava traps, compasses that no longer point north, magic fog, hopeless people coming to kill themselves under the shroud of nature. Aokigahara is nicknamed “Jukai,” sea of trees. I am swallowed up by its dark and dense waves.

            I see myself hanging from a tree, and the grimace of the man who will find my rotting corpse. My life flashes before my eyes, rich childhood, exemplary education, promising engineering career. I am an only child, and I don’t recall really enjoying myself in our house, too big for three people. I was already asleep when my father came home and when my mother picked me up from school, she always looked sad, nostalgic. Sometimes I was afraid I wouldn’t see her, as if I had the feeling deep down that she dreamt of a more thrilling life, and that, one day, she would take the leap.

            The trees dance with the wind, the rain washes my skin. What is left of my marriage? She in a white kimono, her long hair that I love so much up in a perfect chignon – she was one of the prettiest girls at the university, the boys were all crazy about her –, me in a navy suit bearing the family coat of arms. My boss drinks to love, to work, to my promising talent, to the future halls of shopping centers and offices we will get off the ground…

            My wife and I live in a two-room apartment on the southern border of Osaka, a white living room with a splash of red, a copy of a painting by Rothko, her favorite painter. She doesn’t want kids, not yet: she wants to take advantage of her youth. Advantage is a big word: we don’t do anything incredible since I am often at the office nights and Saturdays, and I only have ten vacation days a year. She volunteers part-time at a gallery, paid like an intern, so fortunately I make a good living.

            She is home alone, someone rings the bell. Standing on the landing are two men in dark suits. They are brief. “A public works company is going to replace your apartment building with a higher, more modern building. You have to leave,” they say. Same situation the second time: the shorter one in front, the other, big and well-built, behind, with a curt, threatening message. My wife immediately calls me at the office. The next day, I find our mailbox gaping. At the time, everyone speculates, investors are ready for all illegalities to force out homeowners. She and I, we both know it. Many of our neighbors have already moved out.

            She packs her bags, panicked, and leaves for her parent’s. As for me, after working late into the night, I come home and slide under the covers, alone. My mind starts to wander. I could sell the apartment, I’m not attached to it. It’s not complicated to sell, but at the moment, it seems as difficult as swimming across the ocean. I think of my father, who paid for half of it, not without criticizing the choice (“Not well situated, too dark, too small…”). Nothing ever suits my father, nothing I do is good enough. He never misses an opportunity to remind me that, at my age, he was already an engineering project manager. We don’t connect, we never connect, as if there are brick walls between us.

            Leaving my bags with my in-laws is also inconceivable. What a failure. I’m stuck: the big arms will come back, beat me up, and throw my body in a garbage dump. I ache, my head hurts, I’m working too much. I remember that when the dawn rises behind the venetian blinds, I’m lying down, counting the little stains on the ceiling. It’s only at the moment when I make my decision that I transcend the fog. As if having a new goal brought me back to reality. I shower and put away the books in the library, the bouquet of dried flowers at the center of the white table. I write: “I feel guilty, I’m leaving. I’m sorry for putting you through this. Don’t wait for me. I will never forget you.”

            This note torments me in the forest, in the wind and rain. I have a rope in my bag, I came to end it all.

            The bag remains on the dead leaves.

            I leave my keys, my money, and I continue in the cold through the sea of trees. I fight off sleep. The forest screams at the night.

            The weather is nice, I open my eyes, an old man is leaning over my face. He gives me some soup, rice, grilled fish. He is dressed in a big sweater and watches me in silence while I eat. I’m probably not the first one he’s found.

            I recover my strength, I don’t want to impose. He gives me some cash and watches me go from his doorstep. With my own coat, hat, and shoes cleaned by the old man, I board the train for Tokyo. I’m no one, neither me nor someone else.

            At dawn I find myself outside a shed, automatically, as if I had been there before, as if a voice told me where to go – the voice of survival. Some awkward guys motion to me to get in their van: and there I was, laborer on a building site like those of which, a few months ago, I was checking the lines of the blueprints. The work was hard, the pay reasonable – no papers to fill out, no risk of being found. The trucks meet us at night, but there are also long assignments, two weeks, even a whole month.

            We all sleep in camps, a perfect place when you don’t have an address. One time, there was a police raid, looking for criminals. Fortunately I was in a bar that night, and I didn’t have to give my name.

            It’s a mess there, the bubble burst, I have nothing left to hope for in Tokyo; I want to go back to Osaka, I want something else. My city changed, the chimneys and factories gave way to skyscrapers.

            I get a job under the table in a dry-cleaner’s and rent a room, similar to the one I live in today, which is cleaner and brighter. At night I pace the illuminated city, I like to feel my heart beat, its energy, its music. I often dream of my wife, I think I see her silhouette in the crowd. My life is composed of simple pleasures.

            Then the dry-cleaner closes, I start again, the feeling of failure, the shame, the exhaustion, the overheated brain. The fall is quick. I have the impression I’m watching it from the outside. It’s not me, not yet. I’m losing my teeth, suicide is inevitable. I am a renegade, broken cog in a big machine. Faceless, useless. A life like this will drive you crazy. At some point, I will go crazy. But I am lucky. In spite of everything, I am lucky.

            One night, I am going to look for my soup bowl under a bridge, not far from where I sleep, completely drunk, and I accost a volunteer. She laughs this time, she looks at me, I mean she really looks at me. I feel like it’s been centuries since someone has looked at me like that, like I’m a man. Just like that, I exist. I am alive. I feel my body – tired. We talk a little under the bridge, between the cars that pass, and we continue chatting the next Thursday, and the one after that… This must seem silly to you, but these little exchanges give me a reason to get up in the morning. Before long I help the volunteers serve soup. They also give out hot coffee and used clothes.

            My friend recommends me to the manager of a restaurant who is looking for someone to do a bit of everything, shopping, dishes, cleaning. It’s a tavern with four tables and a bar. It only opens at night, its varied and well-priced cuisine attracts the locals. One day I tell the manager everything, and she accepts me just as I am, with my spotty past. “When are you calling your wife?” she often asks.

            I took the plunge two years ago.

            To see someone again, when you are sure you want it, is also to ask yourself what you are going to start. I slip on an ironed shirt and a dark jacket. I can’t see her, it’s too hard. So I go knock on the door of her brother, my brother-in-law. He opens the door. He hasn’t moved. He developed wrinkles and a belly, but I recognize him right away.

            I say my name, he slams the door in my face, as if I were a thief. I ring the bell again, and he comes back a few minutes later with his wife. They both stare for a long time at the toothless man standing before them, and I know that’s what strikes them the most, this monstrous mouth. They whisper, dumbfounded, “Yes, it’s really him.”

            I had forgotten that their apartment was so luxurious, soft, comfortable. I simply forgot comfort. I didn’t anticipate their reaction at all, perhaps hoping for a little warmth, but on the contrary they are very awkward, spilling tea, stammering, looking at each other for some hint of how to behave. My sister-in-law has a nervous little laugh. My parents are dead. My father first, then my mother. Cremated. Many people at their funerals.

            My whole body tightens, like after a shock. I’m disappointed, and it’s me this time who has difficulty breathing – it nearly hurts – before asking about my wife. Remarried. A long time ago. Two kids, the husband a university professor in Osaka. She couldn’t stop looking for me, couldn’t stop crying. With no trace of me, ten years after my disappearance, she declared me dead. What was I expecting?

            Since then I am dying, slowly. When happiness is lost, it is never recovered.”