Jake Adelstein has been an investigative journalist in Japan since 1993, writing in both Japanese and English, and he is the co-author of “Pay the Devil in Bitcoin: The Creation of a Cryptocurrency and How Half a Billion Dollars of It Vanished from Japan.”
New Year’s Eve is an important day in Japan. It ends with the ringing of a temple bell around midnight. The bell is rung 108 times to banish the sins, mistakes and sufferings of the previous year. However, for one YouTuber, Dec. 31 may haunt him long past the new year. That was the day Logan Paul posted a video of himself walking through Aoikigahara in Yamanashi Prefecture, also known as “the suicide forest.” The clip shows him appearing to discover a dead body. He is later seen laughing in the video, which raised the ire of many both in and outside Japan.
Let me say, I’m not outraged. As someone who’s been reporting on Japan’s suicide issues since 1993, I think he deserves some credit.
The YouTuber has since apologized profusely, stating that he wished to call attention to Japan’s suicide problem. Japan definitely has one — in all walks of life. For years, the number of suicides has persistently floated around 30,000 annually. In 2012, Tadahiro Matsushita, the minister of financial services, reportedly hung himself in his home on World Suicide Prevention Day. It was reported that he was struggling with the pressures of his job.
The problem is closely linked to a work culture where karojisatsu — suicide caused by overwork — is not uncommon. In 2016, when the Ministry of Labor recognized the suicide of a young female employee of Japan’s prestigious advertising firm Dentsu as the tragic result of overwork, it sent a shock wave through the business world.
She had committed suicide on Christmas Day in 2015 by jumping from a corporate dormitory. She had worked 100 hours of overtime the month before. She tweeted that year, “When you’re in the office 20 hours a day, you don’t understand what life you’re living for anymore. It’s so pathetic … you come to laugh.” Unfortunately, the Japanese government’s approach to the problem – a cap of 100 hours of overtime working hours per month – is tragically inadequate. That cynical solution, from the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is more horrifying than any corpse.
Let’s talk about Aokigahara a bit more. Also known the Sea of Trees, it’s a maze-like forest on the northwestern side of Japan’s Mount Fuji that has been a suicide hot spot since the 1960s. There are others.
It was also recommended in the 1993 bestseller, “The Complete Manual of Suicide,” by Wataru Tsurumi.
I remember the book well. I had just started working as a reporter on the police beat that year. A teenage boy was found dead with a copy next to him. He’d electrocuted himself as shown in the book, but not before posting a sign on himself, “Do not touch me. Danger.”
The cop who gave me the story wanted me to warn parents to talk to their children if they saw the book.
It was my first scoop and a sobering introduction to Japan’s culture of suicide.
When there was another book-related death, we elected not to run the story. We feared that by promoting the book we might be prompting people to kill themselves.
Years later my mentor at the newspaper killed herself after being exiled from the news department. We were all ordered not to talk about the case with other media. There was no internal “suicide awareness seminar” or discussion.
I’m a reporter still, but I’m also a newbie Zen Buddhist priest. This year I participated in O-segaki, a ceremony held in the summer, to help the spirits of those trapped between life and death — “hungry ghosts” — pass on to the next incarnation. Suicide is both glorified and treated with horror in Japan, where there is still a belief that those who kill themselves are trapped in limbo.
I’m now learning to talk to people about reasons to live and how to console those who are left behind.
I can understand the criticism of Paul. The video wasn’t tasteful, but if it has focused attention on Japan’s suicide problem, then there may be some good to come out of it.
It is also true that when you give attention to places where people commit suicide, you risk encouraging people to go to them. Residents in other areas have to deal with “suicide tourism.”
The majestic cliffs known as Tojinbo, another hot spot for those seeking to throw themselves to their deaths, saw a real drop in suicides after Pokemon Go was released in 2016 and the area was temporarily besieged with Pokemon hunters. That was luck. There is also a retired Japanese police detective who patrols the area and has saved hundreds of people. Local citizens have posted suicide prevention hotline numbers, set up better illumination, organized volunteer patrols and even used drones to find people on the edge.
If Logan Paul really wants to send a message about preventing suicide and possibly atone for an error in judgement, he should visit Tojinbo and talk to the locals. I’d be happy to go with him.