The Internet has long been fascinated with Japan for all the wrong reasons. A country with a rich and complicated history, Japan and its people are frequently reduced to caricatures and clickbait about ninjas, outrageous game shows, animated pornography, and weird commercials. Search Google or YouTube for “weird Japan,” and you’ll find a goldmine of terrible content stereotyping Japan as the sum of its most bizarre media and traditions — a metric that would reflect poorly on any country — and treating the idiosyncrasies of its oddest subcultures as quirky national characteristics.
Last week, Youtube star Logan Paul became the latest offender in this category when he uploaded a video of a corpse at Aokigahara, a site known to foreigners as the “suicide forest” because of the large number of people who end their lives each year in the Sea of Trees. The crude stunt ignited a firestorm of controversy in both Japan and America, and Youtube eventually responded by removing Paul from the top-tier ad platform and putting his Youtube Red projects on hold. It also produced an apology from the young Youtube star, who insisted it had been about “suicide prevention” and that he “didn’t do it for the views.”
The mea culpa was at odds not only with the glib, envelope-pushing style of his videos, but his more general approach to Japan, which got off to a poor start long before the ill-considered trip to Aokigahara. Highlights of his journey included a sarcastic aside that he had “to be careful to not disrespect the culture,” shortly before waving raw fish in Japanese people’s faces, dressing up like Pikachu and throwing a plush Pokeball at random people in the street, including a police officer. “Tokyo is like a real life cartoon!” Paul shouted, a condescending summary of his attitude to Japan at large.
His attitude toward Aokigahara was similarly callous and dismissive, entering a site where countless people have taken their lives with all the seriousness of a child walking through a haunted house. His response to discovering the corpse of a Japanese man was neither respect nor horror, but glee about the viral content it would create. “This is the most real vlog I’ve ever posted to this channel,” he says with a smile on his face in the now-deleted video. “Buckle the fuck up, because you’re never gonna see a video like this again!”
Perhaps the most damning comment comes after Paul shows the body to viewers, when he holds back a laugh and says, “this was all going to be a joke; why did it become so real?” Aokigahara has never been a “joke,” of course, and the people who died there were always real, something Paul could have learned if he’d spent more time researching the subject and less time talking about the cool ghosts he wanted to see.
Nestled at the northwestern base of Mt. Fuji, Aokigahara is a dense forest spanning 14 square miles that has long been associated with death in Japanese mythology, and said to harbor yūrei, or spirits of the dead. According to folklore, the forest was a frequent destination for ubasute, the mostly mythical practice where an elderly family member was carried to a remote location and left to die.
The modern phenomenon of Aokigahara as a “suicide forest” emerged after the 1961 publication of Seichō Matsumoto’s novel Nami no Tō (Tower of Waves), which depicted two lovers dramatically committing suicide in Aokigahara. The forest has since become the second most popular suicide spot in the world, after the Golden Gate Bridge. Japan also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, a serious social issue nestled deep in its past. There is a long cultural history of viewing certain suicides as honorable, especially in the context of military service. But as the suicide rate climbed during the recession in the 90’s, public concern over the issue increased as well.
At Aokigahara, Japanese officials have plastered signs all over the forest begging suicidal visitors to seek help. Local officials stopped sharing the number of suicides that occur, but their last report from 2010 cited 247 attempted suicides and 54 successful ones. Citizens volunteer their time combing the area looking for those who might be thinking of killing themselves.
There have been respectful, informative videos about Aokigahara, notably the 2012 Vice documentary that follows a local geologist, Azusa Hayano, into the forest. At the start of the video, Hayano points out a dirty, abandoned vehicle that has accumulated a mass of dead leaves on its windshield. “I’m assuming the owner of the car entered from here and never came out,” he notes. “I guess they went into the forest with troubled thoughts.” It’s a somber moment, and with Hayano’s help, the documentary explores history of the forest and the people who took their lives there without sensationalizing or trivializing them.
Paul, on the other hand, approached Aokigahara like the set of his own personal Blair Witch Project, where he hoped to to “focus on the haunted aspect of the forest” and potentially film supernatural events. It’s similarly disheartening to Google search “Aokigahara” and find thousands of posts about hauntings and ghosts. Unlike many landmarks labeled as “haunted,” the forest isn’t the site of a tragedy that took place centuries ago. It’s a stretch of land where Japanese citizens go to this day to end their lives. Aokigahara is not a “joke” or tourist attraction for ignorant children to play in; it is a mass grave. And it deserves our respect.
The internet has often repackaged the complexity of Japanese culture as a series of bizarre, cartoonish memes, but it is particularly sad to see the deaths of Japanese people treated as macabre entertainment. Japanese-American YouTuber Reina Scully has explained at length why the forest should not be considered “a tourist attraction just because the Internet glorified it.” She adds that Paul “doesn’t respect [Japanese people] as people. He sees us as caricatures.” Would he have felt equally comfortable treating an American corpse as a prop, she asks? Or was it somehow easier to dehumanize someone from a country he had openly described as a “cartoon”? (Since posting her video, Scully has received a wave of racially charged slurs and harassment from Paul’s fans.)
My connection to this story is personal as well. My mother is Japanese, and I once spent an entire summer of my childhood in rural Chiba where the neighbors treated me like one of their own. One day the grandmother of the home was praying in a separate room designated to honor deceased relatives. I sat next to her and listened as she chanted a prayer which I couldn’t understand. A small shrine with offerings of cooked rice housed a book that I learned, many years later, held names of all the dead. She burned some incense and lightly tapped on a small gong-like instrument before closing off the room.
Even as a small child, I knew that this was a place and a moment that demanded respect. I felt humbled, honored and reverent. If only Paul, with his audience of more than 15 million, could have managed half so much.