home Asia, Commentary, Culture, Society More than a “Suicide Forest”: Logan Paul, Aokigahara, and the Complicated Stigma of Suicide in Japan

More than a “Suicide Forest”: Logan Paul, Aokigahara, and the Complicated Stigma of Suicide in Japan

In Japan, NHK (Japan’s public broadcasting organization) produces a program called Cool Japan.

In it, new transplants to Japan are taken on cultural field trips around the country. In the long-running series, enthusiastic foreigners (mostly youngish and quick with a smile) are guided through such diverse places as Niigata in the snow, a kimono maker’s shop, or coffee shops of Japan. Some episodes cheerily deal with topics like Japan’s efficient “home delivery” system, or how and why Japanese people enjoy keeping diaries.

After the excursion, the diverse group of foreigners assemble in a studio and have a conversation with the Japanese hosts of the show. The conversation is highly complimentary of Japan, questions are simple, and responses are mostly met with wide-eyed delight from the foreigners.

The whole show is G-rated, slickly produced to present Japan in the best, “coolest” way, while at the same time giving some genuine insight into some of what might be considered some the more curious aspects to the culture.

While the experience of watching Cool Japan is akin to watching one of those “amenities and local attractions” videos in a hotel room, there is something so Japanese about the show. There is a desire to share their culture, a deep sense of pride about everything from wasabi to toilets (yes there really is an episode devoted to the cleanliness and “luxuriousness” of Japan’s toilets), but also an unabashed sense that everything presented to the audience is carefully controlled. Even the questions from the collected group of coltish foreigners are on-brand.

To an American sensibility a show like Cool Japan may read as false, self-serving, glossing over some less-pleasant realities of Japanese life. Where are the issues? Where are the problems that people struggle with? Those observations aren’t exactly wrong, but as one quickly learns when navigating Japanese culture as a foreigner, applying western logic and sensibilities to the way Japan functions can lead to impasse. Often it’s downright insulting.

As an American who lived in Japan for years, I often found that my western “individual first” ideals or my generation’s comfort with a degree of oversharing was in discord with Japan’s guiding principle that the whole is more important than the one. Such an overarching belief infiltrates almost every aspect of culture in some way or another – from riding the subway to how business is conducted. And while it may seem stifling to westerners (and some Japanese), in many ways in direct opposition to how we have been taught to behave, it is an aspect of Japanese life that has to be respected in order to even begin to understand the ramifications someone like Logan Paul’s actions could have.

At this point most of the Internet watching population is acquainted with YouTuber Logan Paul’s now-deleted video of him and his cohorts visiting Japan’s Aokigahara forest and filming the body of a person who died by suicide. Infamous for being the “suicide forest” – a moniker that Japan’s government both acknowledges and discourages – Aokigahara has long been a destination for thrill seeking tourists. Surely informed by this, Paul treats Aokigahara as a joke, the dead individual as a prop, and Japanese culture in general as fodder for his “comedy”.

While Cool Japan is not quite the artistic standard that most documentarians or reporters in the media might aspire to, one can almost understand its overly mannered approach to presenting Japanese culture to foreigners in light of people like Paul’s videos. In addition to his Aokigahara trip, his other videos feature him racing around Tokyo wearing a kimono, shoving a dead fish in people’s faces, and calling Tokyo “a real-life cartoon.”

While many are rightfully outraged over Paul’s portrayal of Aokigahara, suicide, and his disrespect for the dead, let’s not give him credit for being so original as to come up with sensationalizing an issue like this on his own. For many, Aokigahara is not an astonishing natural wonder with cultural, ecological, and historical significance, but rather it is reduced to two words: suicide forest.

I’d wager to say that the majority of westerners don’t know the location’s name, but drop, “Japan’s suicide forest” into conversation and not only will there be a spark of recognition, but interest will be ignited. There is a western fascination with Japanese suicide; a “thing” Japanese people do that lends to their view as strange and “other”.

One need only look to such media entries as the movie The Forest in which an American woman bravely ventures into Aokigahara against the warnings of locals, in order to search for her suicidal sister. Aokigahara is portrayed as this Forbidden Place that only the “disturbed” venture into, and suicide is given as a morbidly exotic plot point.

And while most Americans probably don’t look to The Forest as their guide for “what Japan is like” (at least I hope not), again, just as with Paul’s videos, such movie depictions don’t come out of thin air. They are born of how westerners consider – fetishize – Japanese culture.

Paul doesn’t need to say it, but Japan, Japanese people, and certainly the dead person he recorded are not actually seen as human through his lens. They are “cartoons” and they are suicide. They are Paul’s “cool Japan”.

Such is the joke that is often repeated in western culture about the Japanese. Samurai killing themselves for honor, kamikaze pilots, the trope that Japanese people kill themselves at the drop of a hat. In many ways suicide has been trivialized by western pop culture and media as a stereotype about Japanese culture.

But Japan does have a high suicide rate, sixth highest in the world at this point. Japan does have a relationship with suicide that differs from the way most Americans view it. As Nishida Wataru of Tokyo’s Temple University has noted, suicide in Japan can be seen “as a way of taking responsibility”.

As a non-Christian culture, there is not the question of “sinning” connected to suicide, so much as removing the burden of one’s life or even shame from the people who they affect. This goes back to the sensibility that the one should consider the whole at all times. If one has brought some sort of blight or embarrassment upon one’s family, school, even place of employment, they’ve made ripples. They’ve disrupted the whole.

And while this is not to say that every misstep leads to suicide, in many cases it’s the pressure to be a good worker, or child, or student, or parent, or what have you that leads to mental health troubles and if left untreated, suicidal thoughts or actions.

There’s a saying in Japan that every foreigner becomes acquainted with, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Very generally, this is supposed to comment on Japan’s adherence to conformity. While it is reductive and Japanese culture should never be boiled down to such stark terms, there is perhaps some seed of truth to the phrase. Maybe the individual sticking out doesn’t “get” hammered down so much as they are expected to hammer themselves down?

Seeking care for one’s mental health still carries a stigma in Japan. Though the government has attempted to reduce their suicide rate by 30 percent by 2025, and have had some success, the larger problem remains that people often do not seek help.

If a person is suffering from depression, anxiety, or overwork they are expected to keep it to themselves, to work it out on their own. Such a “hammering down” of oneself can lead to increased despair and isolation. Isolation is an additional problem in Japan amongst both young people and the aging population.

While there is a national problem of senior citizens being alone and uncared for by either their families or professionals, thus dying “lonely deaths” that may be due to illness or suicide – the cause is not always clear or investigated – there is also a problem of students pulling away from society.

Bullying is a staggering problem amongst Japanese students, leading to an alarmingly high rate of suicide amongst teens and young adults. In 2014, “suicide was the leading cause of death for Japanese children between ages 10 and 19.”

Many students face bullying because they are “unique” – they stick out. So they pull away, do not express any anger or frustration, try in some way to conform. While it’s been noted by researchers that a high percentage of Japanese school children suffer from depression, very few seek treatment or even speak up. Doing so might effect their circles of family and school (a student’s home room teacher very often acts as something of a surrogate parent, thus any issues with a student, whether in or out of school, fall on the shoulders of their teacher).

So children retreat into themselves further, sometimes staying away from school, to the point where their thoughts become suicidal.

The workplace can see similar issues. Such extreme pressure is placed on the “salary man” in Japanese culture to work harder, longer hours, to never take breaks or vacations. Due to how the school and university systems works – the university you can go to in most cases locks you into the jobs you can reasonably achieve for the rest of your life – many people feel caught, hopeless in the face of a lifetime of mundane struggle. In so many cases overwork and depression combined with an inability – whether cultural or practical – to seek psychiatric help lead to instances of suicide.

Though the government has created measures to make mental healthcare more known and available to citizens, there are still very few licensed psychiatrists or psychologists especially considering the size of the population.

And since there are so few mental health professionals, the focus is on medicating rather than therapy. A person in Japan may be prescribed intense anti-depression or anti-anxiety drugs, even anti-psychotics, with little to no psychological guidance or counseling. (I can speak to this from my own experience.)

Even if a professional wanted to spend more time counseling a patient, they do not have the time or manpower. It is a culture of “fixing” the mental ailment rather than offering long term treatment.

Sadly, medication cannot replace talking to someone, therapy. Often medication can even exacerbate suicidal thoughts.

An individual who is deeply depressed and suicidal and suddenly finds themselves medicated (outside of the norm) can find themselves feeling further isolated. They cannot necessarily let the people in their social and personal spheres know, for fear of retribution.

So a potentially hopeless cycle begins anew.

All of this is not to say that Japan’s problems with suicide and depression are interminable. Minds are changing, and there is a national push to de-stigmatize mental healthcare. However, the government has to contend with the minds of the people, the world that they actually live full of social consequences and ages old norms.

There are people’s inner life, their emotions, and their outer life, the version of themselves they present as a facade, even armor. To ask people to more readily meld the two, to bring one’s feelings to the forefront, is asking people to undo a lot that has been culturally ingrained.

But in a way, that is what Logan Paul unwittingly, carelessly did. He filmed a man whose inner life was so painful and hopeless that he decided to end his life in a place that he hoped he would never be found. He hammered himself down. But for that man, his family, his circles, his pain and shame was broadcasted.

The whole that that man was a part of, is still a part of, is affected by Paul’s selfish actions.

There was no respect, no acknowledgement of Japan as bigger place than beyond the lens, no self-awareness or self-control. Only the individual and his needs.

Logan Paul took “cool Japan” to a dark place.

Featured image via Creative Commons

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Louise Hung

An American writer living in Japan, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.

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