It’s difficult to know which of these buildings are truly vacant and which simply look the part. All of them once contained some kind of business, as well as the attached housing of the shop owners. Japan is full of shuttered shops like these.
In many cases, the people running these businesses reached retirement age without any heirs, or at least without any who wanted to take over the business. And so the businesses didn’t fail, but nor did they continue. The shutters came down, and the customers stopped coming, but life continued inside.
Whether vacant or occupied, eventually these places wind up looking the same. Rusted steel frames hang above doors, festooned with the tatters of former awnings. Signage is largely peeled and corroded into near-illegibility, if it’s even still there. Often, the signs have disappeared, and all that’s left to show they were ever there is an empty frame with broken lightbulbs or a blank rectangle on a wall, outlined by faded paint or a halo of grime.
The mail slot might also be clogged with a thick mass of old letters and bills, fused together like sedimentary stone after years of exposure to rain.
If there are plants in front, and there often are, these can give good clues regarding human presence. Do they appear cared for, even a little? Or are there just a few stragglers remaining? The hardy, long-term survivors resilient enough to persist untended in plastic pots year after year.
Near my home stands building occupied by four shuttered businesses. On either end, faded signs still hang. One shop had been a Chinese restaurant and the other a soba place. These both appear not to have had a living human in them for at least a decade. The other two still have people in them, though you have to pay attention to find evidence of this.
At one, the shutters come up partially now and then, just high enough for a stooped woman to emerge and water her plants or pull her cart to the nearby supermarket. In the front room of the now-defunct shop sits a bicycle of indeterminate color, the tires of which are flat and crumbling, flaking little bits from the sidewalls onto the floor.
At the other shop, the plants are mostly dead, and the shutters never seem to move. Once in a while, though, a dim lamplight adds a feeble glow to an upstairs window. This is the only clue that anyone is inside.
Recently, a thin man with thick white hair emerged from another apparently empty building nearby, just as I was passing. He said hello, and I tried not to look too astonished by his presence. After more than three years in my neighborhood, I had never once seen a single sign of life there, and certainly hadn’t expected him to appear.
Since then, I have felt far less confident about which local buildings are actually empty. Those that are vacant interest me, but not as much as those in which people still pass their days, quietly and all but invisibly. And in those cases, it’s the unseen lives I find most interesting of all.