March 30, 2017


In her New York Post review, Maureen Callahan describes The Vanished: The "Evaporated People" of Japan (by Léna Mauger and Stéphane Remael) as a compilation of "The chilling stories behind Japan's evaporating people." Sounds dramatic. A little more dramatic than reality.

I seriously doubt that proportionally more Japanese go off the grid than Americans. It's just weird when Japanese do it because, well, Japan is weird to start with and the Japanese are so methodical about such things. Even the homeless in Japan are remarkably organized about being homeless.

What makes Japan different is the ease with which one can "evaporate." As Callahan explains,

There is no national database for missing people in Japan. There are no documents or identifiers--such as our Social Security numbers--that can be used to track a person once they begin traveling within the country. It is against the law for police to access ATM transactions or financial records.

It all goes back to the koseki (戸籍) system.

As in the United States, identity in Japan is based on the birth record. But in Japan, a "birth record" is derived from the centuries-old (though revised and modernized) koseki system, according to which the life events of every citizen are recorded in a genealogical account attached to the household.

It is a pragmatic system whose sheer pragmatism has made it ruthlessly resistant to social change. The married surname controversy has become emblematic of the whole matter, with Japanese courts ruling that, under current law, a married couple must share the same surname.

While sexual mores have kept apace with the times, "illegitimacy" in Japan is treated very much the way it was back in the 1950s. Again, a large part of this is the koseki, which requires that a child be registered to legally exist. The koseki "made every Japanese family an open book."

So a "cover up" could come back to haunt you. Somebody would find out eventually. And that makes for a great plot device.

In The Art of Memory by Sakumi Yoshino (no English version that I'm aware of), the protagonist discovers she has a long-lost brother when she gets a copy of her koseki in order to apply for a passport.

The mistaken paternity in From Up on Poppy Hill arises from registering the child of a deceased friend in order to erase his "orphan" status. By doing so, Umi's father could legally give his "son" up for adoption. But that made it look like Umi and Shun were half-siblings.

The identity theft loopholes documented by Miyuki Miyabe in her mystery novel All She Was Worth have largely been addressed (only in 2008). And yet the koseki continues to reflect the idealized structure of Japanese society, which defined the individual's identity in relationship to the household.

Break that relationship and you can legally cease to exist. That's why "evaporating" works so well. And why skipping out on your debts continues to be a realistic plot device in Japanese melodramas.

In Ma're, when the dad hauls his family off to the Noto Penisula (literally on the other side of Japan) to escape a looming bankruptcy, there'd be no way a credit bureau could track him down unless he told it. Because until only the last decade, the koseki was the credit bureau.

Think of the household as a corporation. Injury to any part of it injures the whole. This is why venture capital remains a mostly foreign concept in Japan. Nobody wants to invest in ten companies knowing that nine will go bankrupt, and nobody wants to be the nine either.

Regardless of the potential upside, the social risk is too great.

But at least when it comes to personal identity, a sea change is coming, though it is a rising tide, not a tidal wave. The Japanese government has gotten serious about the "My Number" system, the equivalent of a Social Security number.

(It's an official Japanese government website so of course it sports a cute bunny mascot.)

That's right, up to very recently, the notion of a single number that followed you everywhere simply didn't exist in Japan. Once it is fully implemented, it should make identify fraud more difficult. But then it will also make possible Social Security number fraud. Welcome to our world.

Related posts

The Mormon "koseki" problem
The koseki system in The Twelve Kingdoms

Labels: , , , ,