I first noticed this book because of the traffic it was bringing to my old post about Tokyo’s Sanya district. “The Vanished” seems to be making a lot of noise in the Japanophile, and not only, circles – and the premise of the book is promising: telling the stories of the “Evaporated People” – johatsu – the deliberately missing people of Japan, those who have fallen through the cracks of the system and ran away to start a new life in a different part of the country.
But from the start, there are a few problems with the premise. For example, is Japan really a place with unique numbers (and categories) of disappearances? The book quotes the number of the missing, for any reason, at 120-180,000 a year. But in UK, with half of Japan’s population and with no natural disasters, there are 200-300,000 people going missing every year. It would seem the French author might find a more interesting story across the Channel, rather than traipsing half-way across the globe…
Another problem I notice early on is that, although the book was published in France just two years ago, there is already a sense of it being out of date. Most of the interviewees “evaporated” during the Lost Decade of the 1990s, out of fear of debt collectors and the mafia, or because of economic hardships their companies had suffered – which is hardly a uniquely Japanese experience. The Sanya as described in the book is not the Sanya I know today, with the slums and “extended stay” hotels being torn down to make place for trendy backpacker hostels, boutique cafes and art galleries. Abenomics may be controversial, but it’s changing the surface of the places described in the book at a pace that’s difficult to keep up with, and it would perhaps be more interesting to read about how the forces of gentrification and a flood of cheap yen tourists impacts the local population, rather than slog through another cliched description of the homeless sleeping at the train station (as they do all over the world), or a woeful tale of the author getting lost in the meandering, narrow streets of suburban Japan (it’s the 2010s, don’t you have a GPS in your phone?).
The one unique aspect of the Japanese “evaporation” that is, indeed, worth exploring and reading about – and which is the supposed main topic of the book – is the organized and efficient manner in which it is happening. Instead of the government or the NGOs dealing with the scale of the problem, everything is left in private hands. The stories of the secretive companies engaged in the “night escapes“, which provide everything from unmarked removal trucks to cash-in-hand jobs in remote parts of the country, make for a good, intriguing read, but they are too sparse and too few to make up for the rest of the book, petering out after a few chapters. The authors seem to be aware of it, spending far too long explaining how difficult it was for them to find enough contacts to fill out the 200 something pages.
Half-way through, the narrative degenerates into a rambling sequence of non-sequiturs, brief essays only vaguely connected to the theme of “vanishing” or escaping, and veering dangerously at times into the “wacky Japan” or “mysterious Orient” territory: the seclusion of the hikikomori, the suicide cliffs, maid cafes, the Tohoku earthquake, the North Korean abductees; these are all topics worthy of separate research, and having them thrown in among the other stories only compounds the feeling of not having enough proper material for what is, for the price (£12 in half-price e-book deal) a fairly short collection of words and photos.
These cliches accumulate until, at last, I am almost forced to give up reading further, as Mauger begins quoting from the antiquated and often discredited “Chrysanthemum and the Sword“. This only confirms my suspicions that her understanding of Japan is merely skin-deep and full of preconceived opinions. It is a pity: a better author could take the subject and go into some really interesting places with it. Perhaps somebody having more sympathy to Japan and the Japanese way of life might notice that the “evaporations” seem, after all, a better way of dealing with the hardships of modern urbanized life than suicide or turning to a life of crime. That even though places like Sanya or Kamagasaki are considered “slums” in Japan, life there is still infinitely easier, and safer, than that in actual slums of Africa or South America. And finally, perhaps somebody would find a way to write an entire book about this single topic, one more deserving of the hype and raving reviews than this jumble of random, forcefully cobbled-together stories.