“The Vanished” review: disappointingly cliche.

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early on is that, although the book was published in France just two years ago, there is already a sense of it being out of date.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?).

Shining future: one of the trendy new hotels in Sanya

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 hikikomorithe 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.

Apparently, these girls also count as “evaporated”.

Kamagasaki: Japan’s biggest slum

Kamagasaki, Home to approximately 25,000 people — absolutely dwarfing Tokyo’s equivalent, Sanya — the area is a far cry from the neon-lit, modern image of Japan’s sprawling urban centres. Although as a cruel reminder, Abenobashi Terminal Building, the country’s tallest, now looks down on the district and its residents with cold, unseeing eyes. Just like the city that sanctioned it. A nameless place, with faceless people.

I just stumbled on this article about Osaka’s equivalent of Sanya, which I wrote about before a couple of years ago. Go read the rest of it here.

From what I hear, like San’ya, Kamagasaki has become a backpacker destination due to cheap hostels. It would probably be my choice of accommodation as well, had I ever needed to stay the night in Osaka… I can only expect it to eventually gentrify, again like San’ya, though where will its current inhabitants go when that happens is anyone’s guess.


The Darker Side of Tokyo

(note: for the equivalent region of Osaka, see here)

Like many foreign tourists on a budget, whenever we are in Tokyo we tend to stay in one of the many no-frills backpacker hotels scattered throughout a district situated to the immediate north of the Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple.

(all photos: Google Street View)

Most foreigners who stay there probably don’t bother to question why small, but clean and decent hotels, not too far from the city centre and usually with good transport connections both to Narita Airport and to the main tourist spots of Akihabara and beyond, are so cheap, and why there seems to be so many of them in this one particular spot. But it doesn’t take a lot of digging to realize the truth. This district was once known as San’ya – the name is now missing from most maps, in an attempt to erase its glum past – is the closest Tokyo ever had to a slum.

It’s not really obvious at first sight, especially if all you do is hurry down the main streets between the hotel and the nearest subway station. There is nothing that you would usually associate with the word slum, certainly not an Asian one. Like any other district, San’ya is immaculately clean and perfectly safe at all times of day and night (Japan is never a crime-free place, but it’s almost always free from petty crime, which helps to maintain the illusion); the buildings are all the same sort of rough and ugly concrete blocks as is standard in a post-war Japanese suburb; the konbinis sell the same uniform selection of food and drink as everywhere else, and the vending machines are just as ubiquitous. But once you start looking, small cracks start to appear in this façade, through which you will start noticing the real face of San’ya.

Shanties marked for demolition

Here and there, among the concrete-and-tile apartment towers, stands a row of shanties of corrugated iron. Most are marked for demolition, but some, remarkably, seem to be still inhabited. Somewhere else, another concrete cube is visibly uglier and in a poorer shape than others, looking both haunted and condemned, with small, dark tinted windows, and a wall covered in splotches of mold and smudges of dust; it seems impossible that anyone would be willing to live here, and yet there will be new cars coming out of the garage, and bikes standing in front in a neat row.

A dusty shopping arcade here, a roof-covered commercial street there, both as far from the glamour of its better known Osaka or Kyoto kindred as possible, filled with little else than cheap booze joints, pork bowl stands, 100 Yen shops and discount supermarkets. On some walls you’ll spot – horror of horrors – graffiti. The day labourers queue up in front of labour exchanges, ever hopeful. Those who are without hope, queue up in front of sake shops, looking for a kind bargain.

San’ya Mosque

There is, of course, a place for religion – the last refuge of the poor. And not just the usual kind; the Inari shrines, standing here since this place was just rice fields and marshland, and a few Buddhist temples, dressed in gold leaf and promise, are all well and good, but sometimes the old Gods can’t provide comfort enough to the needy. So you will spot a stained-window Christian mission on a corner; a Catholic Church peeking its neon cross from between the high-towers; and, strangest of all in Japan, a mosque, unashamedly displaying its prayer hours in both Japanese and Arabic. That last building points to another sure sign of a poor district: the immigrants. Like tourists, they too seek cheap rent and living, not caring for the reason why; and so here, on the streets of San’ya, they all end up, a mixture of languages and cultures resulting in what, in the Estate Agent speak, is known as a “vibrant neighbourhood”.

And if after noticing all this you are still unconvinced as to what kind of place San’ya is, take an evening stroll along the local park on the shores of Sumida River, and watch it fill up with nightly tenants: the homeless salarymen, all impeccably dressed and mannered, preparing their cardboard capsule hotels.

Esperanza Shoe Design Academy
Esperanza Shoe Design Academy

There is another sight that is characteristic only to places like San’ya; one that helps explain how this neighbourhood got to where it is, and why. A sight at first completely innocent and inconspicuous: the shoe-makers shops.

For you see, San’ya was not an organic, improvised,  slum that grows around rich cities on in its own, uncontrollable manner. San’ya was set up and organized as such, a long, long time ago.

The wikipedia entry is kindly euphemistic: it describes the area as set up in the Edo period as residence of the “lower caste workers, butchers, tanners and leatherworkers”. In Japan, this can mean only one thing: San’ya is an Eta District (Leatherworkers, incidentally, are the reason for the above-mentioned prevalence of shoe-makers in the neighbourhood. The best shoes in Japan used to come from here in the days before shoe manufacture moved to China). I will not be here recounting what it meant – and still means – to be an eta, or burakumin: the Japanese pariah. I have linked before to a good study of the subject, so there’s no need to repeat the information. What is striking, however, is how visible the presence and heritage of the lowest class still is in places such as San’ya. The difference between its gloomy tower blocks and the glimmering towers of downtown Tokyo could not be greater.

The winding road once leading into Yoshiwara
The winding road once leading into Yoshiwara

And if that wasn’t enough, there is still more to look out for in the neighbourhood; right across the street from San’ya lay the famous Yoshiwara: the red light district of Edo, not the glamorous abode of the flowery geisha, but the sleazy den of prostitutes, then, as it is now, dedicated to simple exchange of money for sex rather than any more refined entertainment. Immediately to the north, now hidden among the railway tracks, is Kozukappara – Shogun’s grand execution grounds, where so many of Tokugawa’s enemies lost their lives to the executioner’s sword, including Yoshida Shoin, that the main road leading to it is still known today as the Bone Street. In Edo period, you would not have found a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than this swampy suburb sprawling north of Asakusa.

Tatake! Tatake! Tatake! - Ashita no Joe's statue
Tatakae! Tatakae! Tatakae! – Ashita no Joe’s statue

But there is still hope in San’ya – personified best by the character of Ashita no Joe, the hero of one of the most popular, and tragically heroic, manga and anime series of all time. In Joe’s days, in the 1960s, San’ya was a real slum: the corrugated iron shanties being the norm rather than exception. Today, Joe’s statue stands defiantly in front of the shopping arcade, and thanks to low rents and good links, the area is becoming a favourite among young and trendy foreigners, who don’t care for its past. And the Sky Tree Tower rises brightly over the Bone Street, a literal beacon of hope shining over the poor and the rich alike.

You can read more about the “vanishing” people of Japan’s slums in Lena Mauger’s new book, “The Vanished“.

Sky Tree Tower
Sky Tree Tower over San’ya