Thoughts on life after the PhD
As you may have heard, recently a YouTuber named Logan Paul thought it’d be cool to film himself and some friends looking at the body of a suicide victim that they found in Aokigahara, the forest at the base of Mount Fuji where dozens of people commit suicide every year. (The link does not take you to his video, just to an article about the incident.) Paul offered a typically halfhearted “apology” after being roundly condemned by celebrities and the general public.
Paul’s video was one of many in which non-Japanese people with limited knowledge of the country go to Japan, focus on some aspect of Japanese culture or history, and make a video that’s all about them—their bravery, their coolness, their journey of self-discovery. Japan is a prop in these videos, and in the case of Logan Paul, sadly, Japan’s very serious problem with suicide was a prop.
For the past year I’ve been doing research on media representations of Aokigahara inside and outside Japan, and I’ve come across no shortage of these types of videos and articles (I’m not linking to them here because I don’t really want to give them more traffic). Research-wise I’m curious about the ethics of “dark tourism,” the way that representations of Aokigahara feed into non-Japanese people’s perception of Japan as weird / creepy, the debate over who “owns” Aokigahara’s representation (who gets to decide how / if it’s depicted in media), and whether there’s a right or a wrong way to represent a real place where people continue to commit suicide, either in fictional or non-fictional media.
With that in mind, here are some of my observations about Aokigahara and its representation in media, some of which don’t get as much attention in English-language reporting.
1. Logan Paul is not the first person to post video and / or still images of bodies in Aokigahara. There are plenty of these videos on YouTube, most of them by not-so-famous people and thus with far fewer views. A search turns up far more English-language hits than Japanese, but there are Japanese videos as well. Japanese variety programs occasionally do segments on Aokigahara, and the “kowasugi” (too scary) video series had a segment in which a group of comedians went into Aokigahara to try to communicate with spirits via “kokkuri-san” (a kind of Japanese version of the Ouija board). Which is to say that while videos and media that sensationalize Aokigahara are mostly made by non-Japanese people, the Japanese also make such videos. (I’m not saying that this is a good or a bad thing, just that it happens.)
The majority of the videos about Aokigahara on YouTube don’t depict dead bodies–they’re simply shaky-cam images of people walking through the forest, sometimes at night and sometimes during the day. They narrate their videos with commentary about how the forest is creepy or quiet, and they might claim to hear strange noises or see strange things. Instead of bodies, people are much more likely to encounter garbage left behind by people who may have died in the forest—abandoned tents, shoes, and pill bottles, for example. A lot of the people who post these videos seem to be hoping for the same kind of attention that Logan Paul was hoping for—they want to shock and provoke, or they want to look like badasses for venturing into a place that’s supposed to be haunted. Overall, though, the videos don’t seem to get much attention.
Aokigahara also pops up occasionally in Japanese novels, manga, and films. Some people argue that its association with suicide comes from the 1961 novel Nami no tō (Tower of Waves), which ends with the heroine walking into Aokigahara to commit suicide, though there were plenty of suicides in Aokigahara before that novel’s publication. In 2012, author and former Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara’s short story “Aokigahara,” a sort of lover’s suicide / ghost story, was made into a film that played at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The popular manga I Am a Hero has a section in which the characters wander through Aokigahara. Aokigahara’s more recent portrayals in Japanese media tend to focus on haunting and ghosts, but earlier depictions were less about scariness and more about romanticizing suicide (something that plenty of Japanese novels and plays have done).
2. Aokigahara is part of a public park and is a popular hiking / scenic spot. English-language media (films, blog posts, videos) often paint Aokigahara as some sort of forbidden place that no sane person would venture into, but in fact there are large portions of it with clearly-marked hiking trails and plenty of traditional inns nearby. At the bus stop near the Saiko Bat Cave you’ll find advertisements for nature tours. There’s a bird park. There are no signs warning of danger or begging you not to commit suicide. Your compass will work fine, or at least mine did (people often mention that compasses don’t work in Aokigahara because of interference from the volcanic rock that makes up the forest floor, but this only seems to happen much deeper in the forest).
I guess my point is that if you’re trying to look like a badass by filming yourself venturing into Aokigahara, you’ll have to compete with the many senior citizens and families I saw hiking one of the main trails last year.
The section of Aokigahara near the Saiko Bat Cave bus stop is not the section that most people see on YouTube. Over at the Narusawa Ice Cave bus stop, things are a little different. This is where you’ll find the famous signs that say “Your life is a precious gift from God. Please think of your parents” along with a phone number for mental health counseling. This is also where, if you hike for long enough (I haven’t and I don’t plan to), you will start to come upon garbage left by people who likely went into the forest to die, and may occasionally find bodies. This is the image of Aokigahara that appears in 90% of online videos and English-language reporting, but it’s only a small section of a very large forest.
3. The financial strain of dealing with Aokigahara suicides falls squarely on Yamanashi Prefecture, and they need a lot more support. When the body of a suicide victim is found in Aokigahara, the person may have left all identification behind (Aokigahara is especially popular with people who want to die anonymously), and if they do have ID their next of kin may refuse to claim their bodies. Thus the prefecture is tasked with dealing with the bodies—storing them, watching over them, and in some cases eventually arranging for burial or cremation. Not surprisingly, this has taken a serious financial and psychological toll.
In recent years, the local government has begun to train shopkeepers at the Aokigahara bus stops and souvenir shops in suicide intervention. They’ve also installed video cameras at the entrances to the forest to track how many people go in and don’t come back out (it’s believed that many victims’ bodies are never found, simply because the forest is so large, and the notorious The Complete Manual of Suicide details exactly where to go in Aokigahara for those who don’t want their bodies to be found). Volunteers go into the forest to try to talk to people who seem to be going in there to die, and every year a large group of volunteers searches the forest for bodies. All of this takes a considerable amount of time and effort, of course, and it strains the limited resources of Yamanashi’s prefectural budget.
4. Aokigahara is emblematic of Japan’s woefully poor response to its mental health crisis. Japan’s suicide rate has actually declined in the last few years, but the numbers are still usually significant depending on the year of data collection. There are many reasons that suicide rates are high in Japan compared to other countries, but one undeniable factor is a lack of mental health resources and the negative stigma attached to psychotherapy / depression. Depression is common in Japan, but people often see it as a sign of weakness and believe that it’s better to just muddle through until you feel better (an attitude that’s certainly still persistent in the U.S.). People with severe depression are unlikely to tell anyone about it or seek help from a professional (and even if they want that kind of help, a good, licensed psychiatrist can be hard to find, psychiatry may not be covered by health insurance, and the fear of other people finding out that the person was visiting a psychiatrist keeps many from seeking one out).
This has changed slightly in the wake of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, if only because at that time Japan suddenly had to deal with a dramatic increase in depression, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While the events of 2011 haven’t caused people to embrace traditional psychotherapy, some people have begun to deal with the trauma in other ways, like gathering to talk about their problems, asking religious leaders to perform “exorcisms” to rid their homes or villages of ghosts, or speaking to deceased loved ones via a disconnected phone booth.
5. The question of who “owns” Aokigahara—who gets to decide how and if it’s presented in media—is still up for debate. Why do we feel compelled to talk about Aokigahara, and is there a right / wrong way to do it? As I conduct my own research I make a point of constantly asking myself why I’m doing what I’m doing, not wanting to fall into the trap of sensationalizing or exploiting a place that is associated with very real tragedies. Ultimately, I’d say that the Yamanashi prefectural authorities, who have to deal most directly with the consequences of Aokigahara suicides, should have the final say in how the forest is depicted in media, but of course there are limits to how much anyone can control a media narrative. Yamanashi won’t let people film their Aokigahara-themed movies in the forest, though plenty of non-professional filmmakers still wander into the forest with smartphone cameras. The government has stopped posting annual suicide numbers because they fear that doing so will encourage more suicides—a legitimate fear, given that reports of suicides in Japanese media often lead to suicide “clusters” (more suicides happening in the same area as the reported suicide). Needless to say, Yamanashi Prefecture isn’t exactly thrilled with the endless stream of sensational YouTube videos, English-language films, and blog posts that present Aokighara as some kind of horror movie “haunted forest,” not only because this kind of media is deeply insensitive to the very real problem of suicide in Japan, but because more attention of this kind can encourage more suicides.
Given its limited resources, though, there’s not much that Yamanashi can do to combat this narrative. So they’re doing what they can: continuing to deal with the financial and psychological burden of a disproportionately large number of suicides in their region, training everyday people in suicide intervention, asking the federal government for more money, and continuing to offer nature tours and hikes in the sections of the forest that are quite scenic.
Representations of Aokigahara, both exploitative and non, aren’t going away. People will continue to be fascinated by it in the way that any place connected to death and haunting fascinates, and my only hope is that people will pay less attention to crude, insensitive videos like Logan Paul’s and more attention to media that attempts to shed light on Japan’s struggles with depression and suicide.
If you’re interested in good reporting on Aokigahara that doesn’t sensationalize it, I highly recommend this VICE mini-doc (be aware that the narrator mentions “oba-sute” [abandoning elderly people to die in the forest] as if it were a documented fact, but there’s little evidence to support that it ever happened). This is one of the few pieces of English-language reporting I’ve found that focuses 100% on the perspective of a local. Caitlin Doughty also has a great thread about the Logan Paul incident and more respectful ways to deal with death.
For more info on Japan and mental health issues, I wrote this piece a while ago about dealing with PTSD and trauma after the tsunami. There’s also this wonderful NHK documentary (sections of which were featured on This American Life) about the “phone of the wind.”
If you’re interested in helping Japan deal with its mental health crisis, consider donating to TELL (the Tokyo English Life Line), which provides free and low-cost mental health counseling (in English and Japanese), or the Center for Japanese Mental Health, which works to destigmatize mental health issues in the Japanese community at home and abroad.
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