TOKYO — Running away from your problems is hardly unusual. Paying a professional to handle the details arguably is.
In Japan, yonigeya, or "fly-by-night arrangers," help the desperate and besieged slide past loan sharks, elude stalkers and muscle past mobsters. These artists of escape -- part detective, part mover, part psychiatrist -- earn $2,000 to $20,000 per job depending on distance, risk and complexity.
The disappearing act generally starts with a phone call from the prospective client, during which case details and cost are discussed.
Next comes a face-to-face meeting, usually at the client's house, to check out the neighborhood, severity of the threat, house or apartment layout and how many possessions will need to disappear without a trace.
In extreme cases where clients are under 24-hour surveillance, yonigeya pose as window washers or tatami mat tradesmen so they can carry out their tasks without arousing suspicion.
This is also a time to size up the client. By definition, yonigeya customers are desperate -- "I may be dead tomorrow" and "You're my last hope" are frequently heard -- and many are adept at lying.
The main reasons Japanese disappear these days include suffocating debts, often to loan sharks linked to the boryokudan, Japanese mobsters who prey on the weak and desperate.
Others are fleeing different demons, including stalkers and abusive husbands.
Yonigeya check that the client's story hangs together, rejecting jobs that seem fishy. Some run background checks on clients, others rely on instinct. Most yonigeya avoid taking on felons, gamblers or boryokudan.
There are no statistics on the number of yonigeya operating in Japan, but estimates run to several dozen. The companies profess to operate within the law, but some of their activities fall into a gray area.
Because so many of their clients are drowning in debt, yonigeya want their money in advance. Some debtors borrow more to finance the escape.
Occasionally, yonigeya take cases on credit.
"Since I'm hiding them, I know where they live," says Yoshio Onodera, the regional director of one yonigeya firm, Secret Research. "They have to pay me back."
Planning an operation generally takes a week to 10 days. Clients are told to avoid giving anything away.
"Really hard-up people keep their mouths shut," says Show Hatori, experienced yonigeya and author of the book "The Yonigeya -- If You Want to Run Away, Leave It to Me." "We're their way out." For added security, clients may not be told of the plan until the day before.
The yonigeya also use the week to learn as much about the debt collectors, stalker or abusive husband as possible, including the best time to give them the slip.
Hiroyuki Ono of the yonigeya firm Agent Express likes late-night escapes, because debt collectors are not legally allowed to contact customers after 8 p.m.
Hatori prefers late mornings when neighbors are out shopping, tradesmen are making deliveries and the garbage is being collected, creating distractions.
Several days are also spent finding a place to hide. Occasionally, clients make specific requests, but most take the yonigeya's advice, generally opting for big cities like Tokyo or Osaka where it's easier to disappear. Most yonigeya have access to a network of leases, cell phones and vehicles registered under different names.
Ideally, clients are alone, take nothing more than a small bag and leave behind their credit cards, driver's licenses and other identification.
They should also leave behind their cars, because suspicious lenders sometimes plant tracking devices in vehicles. An accident report could also give one away. But personal possessions provide a measure of mental security to clients uprooting their lives, especially when their children are involved. Some yonigeya, however, draw the line at bringing along pets while others accept them -- but only if they're small.
In the several days before the move, small items are discreetly removed in backpacks or small bags and stored elsewhere, leaving the furniture. Sometimes yonigeya disguise themselves as secondhand shop workers and "buy" the used furniture. Others pretend that they're from a department store to pick up boxes prominently marked "returned item." The vast majority, however, rely on speed.
On the appointed day, family members are told to follow their usual routine. Then at a prearranged time, the father heads out on a concocted sales call, the mother goes shopping and the children leave school for a "doctor's appointment" as operatives pick them up at agreed-upon locations.
Back at the house, a crew of workers swoops in, packing and hauling boxes into waiting vans at a furious pace. An agent keeping watch has memorized the faces, license plates and vehicles of potential pursuers. The operation can be called off if necessary, but if well advanced, agents sometimes rough up anyone who threatens to stop them. And there's often an extra car on hand to block any vehicle tempted to follow them.