Protagonist Risako Uchida, 32, rents a room in an aging wood-frame apartment house in Tokyo, and the story begins with someone pounding relentlessly on her door at 1:30 in the middle of the night. It’s a woman claiming to be the girlfriend of the previous resident, who died of a sudden stroke while taking a bath. Yielding to the woman’s pleas, Risako lets her in and listens to her story.
Sometime before this, Risako’s husband of three years had divorced her for cheating on him with a man she met at a cultural center. Thrown out on her own without any immediate source of income, she had visited real estate agencies in search of the cheapest apartment she could find. She eventually wound up at the rental agency Aiba, where, upon learning her circumstances, the owner said he would find her an apartment and pay her ?5,000 per day to live in it free of charge. He was in effect offering her a job “laundering” apartments where someone had died an unnatural death.
In Tokyo’s housing market, properties where a murder, suicide, or other unfortunate incident has occurred are often considered stigmatized. Since prospective renters shy away from these, some landlords lower the rent while others attempt to lease them without disclosing the recent history. The situation has led to a tacit agreement in the rental industry that disclosure need only be made to the first tenant following the stigmatizing event. This allows landlords to “launder” the affected property by having someone live in it for a month before putting it back on the open market. Aiba Agency specializes in this.
One year later, after numerous moves from one stigmatized place to another, Risako has become one of Aiba’s go-to laundering contractors along with Suga, an older man with 20 years of experience. Since they typically have to move every month or so, the credo of such “shadows,” as the contractors are known, is to live with the fewest possible furnishings and household effects and a minimum of contact with the neighbors. Risako has generally kept to the drill, but when she moves into the Otome Apartments in Tokyo’s Yanaka district, an older part of the city where people are known for their neighborliness, she becomes acquainted with Mrs. Manabe, her elderly landlady who lives on the first floor of the building, and the Fujiwaras (father and son) who run the Fujiya Diner down the street.
Then Suga goes missing while living in a luxury highrise near Tokyo Station where a 21-year-old actress had died three months before. Aiba asks Risako to take over the apartment immediately, tearing her away from the friendships she has begun to form.
The story casts light on the housing situation in Tokyo as it traces how a woman gets back on her feet to reclaim her life.