Aokigahara and How Two Cultures Approach Suicide
The recent drama over Youtuber Logan Paul video taping himself by a dead body of someone who had committed suicide in Aokigahara Forest lit up the internet, in a near universal sense of revulsion, though not all. That he was laughing and taking the macabre discovery so lightly genuinely horrified many people as to how someone could take someone’s despair so trivially. At the same time, it highlighted the forest that is already infamous in Japan as a place where people go to commit suicide by the hundreds each year. And it is something that both saddens and perplexes us who are not native there and don’t comprehend why so many people would go to one place to die, let alone to die at all.
However what the incident also highlights is the gap between how Westerners and Japanese view the act of taking your own life.
According to many scholars, locals who live near the forest, and Japanese historians, Aokigahara has always had a mystique about it that seems to lure people into its unnavigable depths to die that goes back centuries. It is called the ‘sea of trees’ because once a traveler goes in there, they are almost always never seen again. The dense collection of growth making it near impossible to find your way back out. This reputation continues to this day and there is a scientific reason for that. Sitting at the northwest side of famous Mt. Fuji, the forest’s foundations are made up of an unusual concentration of iron so that even using GPS and compasses are never a guarantee for safety. Most in fact use rope or string to mark where they came in, even along marked out paths.
It is also said that the forest is haunted by the spirits of the departed, or that it is demons calling nearby travelers in.
Both the recent controversy with Logan’s vlog and the history of the forest reveals how western and Japanese culture view suicide itself.
"Shame was the loss of this mark and a scar on that person’s legacy and everyone who came after or before them."
The Shadow of Honor and Shame
Blogger Megan Negrych wrote an in-depth piece on the location called, The Forest: A History of Japan’s Sea of Trees, Aokigahara. I will leave a link to the article below. In it, she states that the reputation of the forest and of Mt. Fuji where it’s located is intertwined. Both represent some aspect of spirituality, supernatural power, and purity of nature. Both are also very isolated and intimate and that is a large reason why many Japanese have gone there, is to not only become a part of some greater community but also perhaps to achieve some level of purity because of Aokigahara’s isolation from the mainstream world.
Perhaps for most of us who are not scholars about Japanese culture, the idea of making taking your own life for a greater cause isn’t that unfamiliar. We already stereotype the culture of the samurai, and by extension Japan itself, as such an honor-driven, rigid society that to us suicide seems like par for the course for them. This is also part of our pop culture too, like kamikaze, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Last Samurai, and our fascination with Katana swords. Even the Japanese themselves take advantage of this association in their own media culture, though not as doe-eyed and simplistic as Westerners do.
Yet some stereotypes are rooted in fact. Though nowhere near as rigid as pre-World War Two, Japanese culture, like Mt Fuji and Aokigahara Forest, grew up in isolation until the late Nineteenth Century. Even after that, the culture was still very much a mystery, yet was also defined by a strict hierarchy of structure, tradition, and obedience. All of that was intertwined and embedded within the concept of honor and shame. To many world cultures, but especially Japan, honor was someone’s dignity in their status or action defining not only the core of who they were, but also had ripple effects on their family for generations and what opportunities were available to them. Shame was the loss of this mark and a scar on that person’s legacy and everyone who came after or before them.
It is a much bigger deal than we who live in a “don’t get butt-hurt” society can typically comprehend. Though Western culture has clearly change the direction of Japan’s cultural river so to speak towards a more expressionistic and individual atmosphere, the source of that river remains the same and maintains an underlying presence. This ancient presence has been a marker for how Japanese culture as a whole has defined itself as distinct from the rest of the world.
The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered
Also, Japanese culture is by and large non-confrontational. Opening up about your struggles is not looked strongly upon as a positive thing, even today. Because of this attitude of hiding problems to preserve the status quo, many people often suffer over the stresses of jobs, family, and even sexual harassment internally without ever really having an outlet to deal with it. Regardless of the culture, when a person lacks an outlet to deal with the pressure, suicide starts to look like the salvation of Jesus Christ.
It is said that people who commit suicide at Aokigahara Forest do so because its not only separated from the world that drove the them into despair, but also because it can be a reaffirmation of identity and connecting with others who understand the struggle, even if they’re not of this world. It’s as much a last ditch act of establishing self of as it can be despair. In the west however, it’s usually the perceived in the context of despair only.
When I went through my suicidal phase living in Rochester, New York, there was the same overwhelming sense of isolation and despair. But there was no thought of any last act of redemption by ending my life. No looking for someone to understand me on the other side. No looking to become one with a greater community. It was an act of loneliness to the bitter end, a looking for a way to make it all stop: period.
For many suicidal people in the west I think it is that way, though not to the same degree and absolutely for different reasons than my own. But you see the point. Western suicide is an act of individualism and non-conformity. While in Japan, it’s the exact opposite. As westernized as Japanese society is today, the belief of communal ties and responsibility is still strong.
The best example is the classic tale of the Forty Seven Ronin: samurai whose lord was disgraced by a rival and had to commit ritual suicide. The fallen lord’s retainers went into hiding for months before regrouping and attacking the rival, taking his head as an act of justice and loyalty. However this went against the Shogun’s decree and in order to appease both him and the masses that supported the action, the ronin were allowed to commit ritual suicide, preserving their honor and their name. To this day the graves are still taken care of at Sengaku-ji
Alternate Point of View
This misunderstanding suicide between Japan and the west regarding taking one’s own life goes back much further than some youtuber doing a foolish and insensitive stunt in 2018. During the final years of the Second World War, the Japanese military government created suicide cores of pilots and sailors to stop the American advance. They killed thousands of people and etched the name of their corps into American society to this day, kamikaze. When we use it, it’s usually in the context of something so crazy and extreme that it might as well be suicidal. And this was exactly how American servicemen viewed Japanese servicemen whom they fought: crazy and extreme.
Because who willingly chooses to throw away their lives so recklessly?
And that is how many of us are now looking at the victims of Aokigahara Forest highlighted in the youtube video.
To take one’s own life is something someone must be pushed towards and pushed extremely hard. Across most cultures whether in peace or war, the act is one of last resort when the person can see no other option available to them. Right or wrong is another story.
Today most frown upon it, including most Japanese people today. Yet at the same time, its not nearly as taboo as it is here. Our view of suicide stems from the Christian tradition frowning upon it and saw it as self-murder. Because of its isolated history, Japan’s relationship with the act is entirely different and was largely acceptable for most of that time until the Twentieth Century.
The appeal, if you can call it that, of Japan’s history with taking your own life and Aokigahara Forest is unique from any other place in the world. People still do kill themselves out of tragic circumstances, but at the same time can carry a deeper intention as well. It is an contradiction of despair, desperation, sadness, hope to find belonging, and rebellion against the world. And that mass of intentions is not something that the western mind, with its black/white and linear attitudes is accustomed to dealing with.
That is not to justify suicide. Japan is taking steps to open up clinics and help to people dealing with stress and crisis’s and offer alternatives. But centuries’ worth of social conditioning does not break easy, even among the young. And still among many people, they prefer to handle their situations quietly rather than draw unwanted attention to themselves.
For more on the history of Aokigahara Forest, follow this link:
© 2018 Jamal Smith