Early in the morning, the elderly gentleman told his wife goodbye as he left his home and made the short walk to the train station nearby. He took the hour-long ride north to Japan’s nationally famous Kenrokuen Garden Park. He spent the morning walking its paths, a cloth bundle slung over his shoulder. He paused for a moment on the bridge near the garden’s famous two-legged stone lantern.
From there, he headed along a side path to one of the smaller restrooms. Once there, he removed his clothing—slacks, shirt, sweater, underwear, socks.
He unrolled his bundle.
He donned his traveling priest’s robes, slid on his woven straw sandals. He carefully folded his regular civilian attire and placed them on the shelf above the Japanese-style toilet in the stall. Upon this stack of modern life he placed his last two tethering possessions: his cellphone and wallet, both of which carried pictures of his wife, son, and grandchildren. Cut loose from those societal, technological, and legal bonds, he placed his domed kasa on his head and walked out.
Years as a father. Decades as a husband. A lifetime as a priest. He now began his disappearance.
Japan’s ongoing disappearing acts
If there’s one thing Japan does right, it certainly is not maintaining a solid count on their population. Between deaths, disappearances, suicides, homicides, and people just opting out…Japan has done a (perhaps deliberately) shitty job of keeping track of people egressing its society.
They keep a damn good count on who comes in, yes—and I’ve discussed this already—but those who go out? Not so much.
From Aokigahara—The Field of Deep Blue Trees, Japan’s “suicide forest”—to victims being trafficked in or out, to people who have been dead for years (and are still mummifying in their houses. No shit), to those who just check the fuck out of society and head underground (sometimes literally), there is no accurate way for the nation to track the stuff they are refusing to acknowledge exists. No social security numbers. No real way to track cash-based transactions (which the entire civilian economy drives itself on). No British-esque police-state surveillance.
Luckily for me, I’m not Japanese.
Knowing how to hop on and off grid has its advantages. For one, you can move pretty freely. You can also generally access information prevalent in either respective “world.” Old-school multi-dimensional. (Black operations and black markets both have ‘black’ in their names for a reason.) Snoops, creeps, crooks, and gumshoes know all too well the layers of society, and how to navigate them. (While our modern equivalents concern themselves more with the cyber/non-cyber world—Matrix vs. Meatspace—some of us from the Moscow rules generation still recognize that a person can simply cease to exist by chicaning the people and processes by/with/through which we are anchored to Meatspace.)
We all learn as young adults that you only ever have to do two things in life: pay taxes and die. Heh. Sounds like a problem set to me, but I digress. As of yet, we cannot juke death—that I know of, anyway. But dodging the taxman—or the system he represents—is simply a matter of altering your records in his files. Or altering yourself out of those records.
As I mentioned, the Japanese are not numericized through social security. They are plugged into society based on a reasonably complex system of official, state-governed family records. When you are born, you get logged in. When you get married, the party gets logged into whichever family the couple will be joining. (Kinda like how we change from maiden names to married names on the Western side of the pond.)
Well, if that information fails to be reported correctly, or at all…how the hell does the system know your status has changed? And if it does change, how the hell does the system then track you down to make sure you’re “paying your taxes?”
Exactly. It doesn’t/can’t.
This leads us into the “slow-motion suicides” so poetically mentioned in the title. That guy in the little anecdotal opener is a real dude. I knew him. Shinto priest. Mountain runner, which is why he knows yours truly. We hooked up through a network of people who knew we shared the same geek-ass fitness tendencies. We both ran the Mount Fuji Marathon in 2007.
My man just up and left his life. Cold fucking turkey. I heard about it through my network the day of. Came on-scene ASAFP. Added what I could.
I talked to his fam—wife and son (who’s a bit younger than me, so…grown adult). His son was flipping out. Screaming about how irresponsible this was. Ranting and raving. Spilling his tea.
I sat at the kitchen table, not spilling mine. Watching. Asking questions. Waiting while Jr. yelled at the kitchen in general.
Eventually, he turned on his mom (who had been standing at the sink staring out the window). Opened up on her. Asking how she could let this happen. Asked her what she had done to make his dad do this. She just stood there.
I knew neither of these people, actually, but we all knew who we all were. Didn’t stop me from sitting in their kitchen drinking some dirt-tasting tea, trying to figure out where the fuck my runnin’ buddy was.
I got the son to chill for a sec. Asked the question the son meant to ask: “Where do you think he is right now?”
She replied with one word: “Shugyo.”
Without sidetracking this whole “people disappearing” thing, lemme ‘splain what a shugyo is. Shugyo is the warrior quest. Plain and simple. Bro just opted out of life to live like it was a thousand years ago, live shrine to shrine, and wander the country in an effort to reach Satori (enlightenment) through doing epic shit. (In his case, probably climbing the Hyakumeizan, Japan’s 100 famous mountains. It’s a thing. I’ll write about it later.)
At that moment, I knew precisely two things: 1) My man was on a (personal) mission, and 2) There was no possible fucking way I was going to interfere with anything as legit as his shugyo.
This is one tiny little example of the rationale/catalyst and method the Japanese use daily to bug out. Everyone has their reasoning. Everyone has their way. Some people opt out by offing themselves. Totally acceptable course of action J-side (thanks, Samurai dudes!). Some people opt out by just walking away. That’s what this piece is about.
The reasons can be as varied as “Screw this job,” to “Screw this marriage,” to “Dude…shugyo,” to “Uh…I’m broke as shit,” to simply being on the lam. Whatever the reasoning, the result is the same: There are a shit-ton of Japanese folks livin’ off the bureaucratic grid.
No address. No salary. No taxes. No phone number. They just bleed out into the night.
Some of them go on walkabout, like my priest buddy up there. Some of them just blend back into another part of the sprawl. Some of them just become homeless. Some of them head off to the greener pastures doing “untouchables'” jobs deep in the bowels of Japan’s seedy underbelly. (And it is seedy.)
The causes are as varied as the ghosts now drifting around Japan. But—as stated—the effect is unanimous. And we all know that East Asia can be unnervingly Confucian when it comes to records and paperwork. So for such a magnitude of citizens to render themselves unbureaucratized…is pretty nucking futs.
Like my weaponized-ass article way back when, this whole slice of Japanese society brings with it an entirely as-weird-as-you-might-expect slice of business. From companies who will sell you some dead guy’s personal info to use as you like, to companies who will set you up with a new place to stay—and surreptitiously move your stuff there. And at the opposite end of that spectrum, there are a slew of tiny pseudo-private-dick firms who will “find your lost loved one.”
The fact that there are economics or infrastructure at all shows that this is not only a real thing…but a comparatively BIG thing. And the fact that the government isn’t seriously engaging the issue—to me—means that Japan has a vast (VAST) security issue on its hands. Not unlike, for example, the United States’ essentially open borders.
Lesson time. When you’ve got a system, any system, that is so hardwired to believe it’s tamper proof, it is all the more easy for anyone with enough know-how and elbow-grease to exploit, circumvent, and outright shirk. (And my elbows are practically dripping.)
And the icing on this freak-cake is that—as we all know now due to my reiterational lecturing—Japan is a fundamentally guilt-based society, with all their omote and ura craziness. Which means? Good. It means that when someone’s wife or father or child opts out and pulls a Jimmy Hoffa…ain’t NO ONE gonna bring attention to it! Because then they’d be bringing outsiders into their ura. And that shit is no bueno.
Ya know…akin to the Wakaresaseya I talked about in some other article I wrote, there are companies that will supply you with a temporary family member. Yeah. That. That is a thing. (Can you imagine THAT gig?)
So. Lemme paint you this picture. This girl is in a shitty marriage. She’s got no cash to hook up with a honey pot to hang her hubs on to get that fat divorce settlement. Whole fam’s in deep debt (enter the shame bit). She can’t even cover a normal divorce, from which she will inherit her share of the irresponsible spending habits. Can’t go to Mom and Dad for whatever reason. Can’t dance. Can’t hook. Got offspring to deal with.
So, this girl opts to opt out. She contacts a company that will help her quietly punch out while her hubs is at work and her kid’s at school (which is probably when she’s out spending the dude’s money). By COB that day, she’s three cities away, has a new name, a new place, and a new (or first) job. (Plug shady biz Number One.)
So…our hubs and his kid are left scratching their heads as to where the hell mom went. He doesn’t wanna call too many people about it after the initial “OH SHIT” moments, because then folks’ll be asking why she left. So, our boy keeps rolling on and covers down on being both mom AND dad for his kid. But for some social engagements, in order to maintain omote, this dude needs to have “mom” around. So he contacts another company (shady biz Number Two) to hire out a temp mom to go to his kid’s school picnic so dad doesn’t look like a dick and his kid doesn’t get made fun of for having no mom.
You can’t make this shit up. And if you could, I already would have. And I’d have published it in some twisted “50 Shades of the Rising Sun” epic freakfest already. So here we are, standing aghast at the base of this twisted mountain of societal orgiac insanity.
It’s like I already have all the cheat codes to this game.
What this means to you, specifically, is up to you. What this means to you generally is that even in an industrialized, hyper-bureaucratic (read: control freak) nation like Japan, entire subcultures can exist absolutely under the radar. Outside conventions. Outside rules. Outside laws. Outside TSA. Outside the FBI. Outside DHS. Outside.
This is how this shit works. We know the parameters, our left and right limits, then we crush them or slide right past them to do whatever it is we do. It doesn’t take super spy skillz to do this. It takes either knowing where the holes are, or knowing someone who can sell you the location of a hole. Guys at the other end of this—back to those cyber comparisons, plus cops and keymasters and gatekeepers—try to know all said holes, and stop people like me from walking in and out of them. (Security is infinitely reactive, so I won’t argue the philosophy of how or why this bullshit is done, on either side.) But, if any ol’ Jane or Joe can simply fool the system with a bit of mis- or dis-information, and futz off to greener pastures…then there is a problem. Some of us depend on those holes, or that futzing, notwithstanding.
Japan, to me, holds an interesting position as an extreme example of a ton of issues that plague or can plague any other nation or society anywhere on Earth. So, when I see this shit playing out J-side, I reflect it—reflect on it—through a U.S. filter. Then, when I look, I see the same indicators. And shit gets real.
As a general rule (for me), it is significantly more difficult to navigate in and out of the subdivisions of a foreign culture or nation than it is to do so in my own. And, uh, it ain’t that difficult to do it OCONUS. (Especially in my case, where I don’t have all the administrative trappings that some other gov employee has to have. Back to bureaucracy, eh?)
Japan’s got problems. I’m illustrating those to you folks on the regular. This one is not only a societal issue, but also a security one. I can’t be creeping around outside the Gaming Grid with only Japanese peeps who’ve opted out…right? Anyone doing anything even remotely resembling what I do is out here.
And that can’t be good.
Rog. I’ll dial it back a bit.
Japan has a significant population that is living well outside the official demographic. These people have decided that it is better for them to live out their lives in anonymity, dying alone and with no connection to that family record I mentioned. (Which is a pretty big damn deal.) They have decided that, somehow, it is better for them to die…but slow-like, over time. Not so different from the way you and I die. But then again, we have our name. We have our family. Or friends. Or other loved-ones. And all our shit. They have opted out…but also opted to not go hang themselves in a cliche semi-haunted forest and become some shabby Western documentary topic.
We are all ghosts in our own little way out here. Some of us more so than others. But I’m damn glad that I at least have the option to unplug, come back to normal life, and not spend the rest of my days drifting in some fucking weird half-world just waiting to die.
Maybe that is my shugyo: Don’t die.
(That’s depressing…there’s no way I can succeed in that.)
Featured image courtesy of The New York Post