At one point or another, we’ve all thought about quitting what we were doing, upping sticks and starting a brand new life, but how do you actually go about doing it?
In Breaking Bad, it’s as easy as waiting at a bus stop for someone to come and whisk you away, but in the real world, disappearing without a trace is becoming increasingly difficult: everything from your phone to your credit card can be used as a tracking device, while CCTV on every street corner makes it easier than ever to pick out a face from a crowd.
But it’s not impossible. All over the world, there are tales of people who packed their bags and vanished without a trace, either popping up years later or, in some cases, never being heard from again.
In Japan, the phenomenon of leaving to start a new life has even been given its own name. ‘Jouhatsu’ – literally translated as ‘evaporation’ – is a term used to refer to people who deliberately disappear to start a new life, leaving no clue or explanation as to their whereabouts.
It’s not clear how many people in Japan leave their family and friends behind in this way each year – according to one journalist, it’s as many as 100,000 – but the practice is common enough that there are entire businesses based around helping ‘jouhatsu’ successfully disappear.
Known as ‘yonige-ya’ or ‘night moving’ companies, these businesses provide services aimed at making the process of vanishing easier, from providing places to stay to redirecting mail and making sure no one is on a client’s tail. Unlike the people they help, they don’t always move in the shadows: many are easily found on Google.
‘Normally, the reason for moving is something positive, like entering university, getting a new job or a marriage. But there’s also sad moving – for example, like dropping out of university, losing a job or escaping from a stalker,’ ‘night mover’ Sho Hatori told the BBC, explaining that his company, which he founded in the 1990s, ‘supports people to start a second life’.
Unlike in the UK and United States, the right to privacy in Japan means it’s much harder to track someone using modern technology. ATM transactions aren’t monitored, and members of the public aren’t given access to security footage, with police ordinarily only intervening if the person who vanishes is suspected of a crime or feared to have died by suicide.
In some cases, night moving companies are run by fellow jouhatsu with their own experience of escaping hopeless or dangerous situations. In the early 2000s, Miho Saita escaped a violent partner by disappearing with only her car and her dog, and has since become the CEO of Yonigeya TS Corporation, a company that claims to help as many as 150 people vanish each year.
‘When we ask where do you want to go, they say ‘I don’t know, I just want to change myself. I don’t belong here’. They are looking for a new place, a new world,’ she told TIME in 2017, estimating that around 20% of her clients are also looking to escape abusive relationships, with the rest giving reasons ranging from gambling debt to a bad job. TS Corporation operates 22 branches across Japan, charging between $450 and $2,600 USD to provide a variety of services, which she says often ‘fill the gap’ left by the police and other social services.
But what do the jouhatsu themselves think of their situation? ‘I got fed up with human relationships. I took a small suitcase and disappeared,’ Sugimoto – one of Saita’s clients – told the BBC. ‘I constantly have a feeling that I’ve done something wrong.’
One private investigator estimates that around 20% of cases he’s brought end up going cold, with another 10% revealed to be suicides. But many jouhatsu do successfully maintain the mystery, like Saita. ‘Everybody has individual struggles,’ she said. ‘In a way, I’m a missing person – even now.’
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