Want to earn 50,000 yen ($550) a day? If you have a strong stomach, you might consider a part-time job washing cadavers in Japan.
Strapped for cash?
Rumors about the existence of lucrative cadaver-washing jobs have circulated on Japanese college campuses for over 50 years. For the most part, these stories are regarded as urban legends, and most evidence suggests that no such job opportunities actually exist. If they do exist, they are difficult to find because they are not publicly advertised and can only be heard about through word-of-mouth.
According to the word on the street, though, these lucrative temporary jobs can be found at medical facilities and universities that maintain supplies of cadavers for educational purposes. The bodies, which belong to individuals who have donated themselves to science, need to be washed before they can be used as specimens in human dissection classes. Temporary workers are hired to perform the unpleasant cleaning task.
Some theories link the origins of the job rumors to a 1957 short story by internationally acclaimed author Kenzaburō Ōe, entitled "Lavish Are The Dead" (Shisha no Ogori - 死者の奢り). The story, which Ōe wrote while attending the University of Tokyo, revolves around a couple of student employees tasked with transferring cadavers from one pool of liquid preservative to another. Although Ōe's work is fiction, there is some speculation that the job featured in the story was actually based on fact (or even hearsay).
Other theories suggest these job rumors existed well before Ōe wrote his short story. During the Korean War, corpse-cleaning jobs were rumored to be plentiful around certain US military bases in Japan, where the remains of fallen US soldiers were taken for identification and embalming before their journey home. Similar rumors appear to have been common during the Vietnam War era as well.
In 1995, however, writer and medical doctor Yoichi Nishimaru published an essay examining the history of US military mortuary affairs in Japan. The essay includes a quote by a mortuary officer who denied the existence of such corpse-washing job opportunities for Japanese civilians.
Still, the rumors appear to be alive and well. Universities reportedly receive occasional telephone calls from people searching for temporary cadaver-cleaning work. Although most of these inquiries appear to be prank calls, there are evidently a few calls from serious job-seekers as well. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.
[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on Japanese urban legends. Check back next week for more.]