Youtuber Logan Paul rang in 2018 by posting a vlog of a suicide victim’s corpse in Japan.
Aokigahara, known as “Jukai” or “Sea of Trees”, is a section of forest near Mt. Fuji in Japan. Volcanic activity has made the soil incredibly rich, and the area is uniquely thick with trees and undergrowth. Slippery rocks, exposed roots, and a disorienting expanse of trees make the forest a dangerous place to hike, but that is not why an area is cordoned off.
A section of Aokigahara has the nickname “Suicide Forest.” Since the 1950s, it has gained notoriety as a place where many Japanese people come to kill themselves. Those who enter the forest may find discarded tents and personal items, signs in Japanese urging them to seek help, and, in Logan Paul’s case, victims of suicide.
Logan Paul’s choice to share this grisly find in a vlog might seem shocking. The biggest shock, however, might be that exploring Aokigahara for the purpose of vlogs was already its own genre.
Youtuber “Exploring with Josh” has just under 7 million views on his video “Exploring Suicide Forest Aokigahara, Japan ( 青木ヶ原 ).” In it, he opens with a 16 second disclaimer that “Suicide is everywhere… it’s a serious thing. We’re not here goofing around looking for dead bodies.” He then rattles off unsourced and inaccurate facts about the forest.
“They’ve been finding more bodies every year [since 2003].” He reports, incorrectly. While 105 bodies were recovered in 2003, that number decreased in subsequent years until Japanese authorities stopped releasing this data in 2015. “By 2010 they were finding over 200 bodies here.” He goes on to claim. The Japanese police reported over 200 suicide attempts in 2010, but only found 54 deceased persons.
The video goes on to depict Josh and several companions walking through the forest. To reach their destination, they ignore a sign telling them not to enter. Off the trail, they point to discarded items and peek into empty tents. He mentions hearing distant voices and describes ominous feelings. The video is tracked by eerie horror music to pair with long, panning shots of discarded objects. The video offers no insight on suicide, mental health, Japanese culture, or anything other than a desire to be make the forest appear sinister.
Recently, “Exploring with Josh” has made another video on Aokigahara. It wasn’t an apology. He replayed his 16 second disclaimer on suicide and praised himself for how he “hit it off good with good respect.” He accuses Logan Paul of not showing that respect that he supposedly showed. He goes on to claim many others have copied his idea, even criticizing one Aokigahara vlog for using “his location.”
He isn’t lying about how many imitators there are. Searching “Aokigahara” on Youtube, I found a video by Youtuber TFIL titled “OVERNIGHT AT SUICIDE FOREST (Warning: Incredibly Scary)” with 10.8 million views, a video by Youtuber Brennen Taylor titled “Ouija Board in Suicide Forest…Aokigahara, Japan (scary)” with 1.7 million views, and “(Insane) OUIJA Board in Aokigahara Japanese Suicide Forest! (Warning: Very Scary)” which Youtuber Stromedy posted in January of 2018. I went in expecting a few videos that might have inspired Paul. I found more than I could reasonably count.
While it appears that Logan Paul’s video was the only one to feature the dead body of a human, these videos are far from respectful. The vloggers play with Ouija boards and scream at whistling winds. They camp overnight in a place where camping is forbidden. The videos play up the spooky atmosphere and treat suicide as a catchy title. They’ve created a tourist tradition on the site of a mass grave.
And yet, these videos seem to have garnered none of the controversy which Logan Paul’s has. Jukaisploitation seems stronger then ever after Logan Paul showed the dead body of a real person. Thanks to him, they seem confident that as long as they don’t show a corpse then everything else is fair game. And so, despite the attempts of the Japanese Police to end the associations of the “Suicide Forest”, these foreign Youtubers have renewed the forests infamy.
Among the videos on Aokigahara, however, the most visited video comes from Vice. The video, titled “Suicide Forest in Japan,” has just shy of 18 million views. In it, documentarians follow Azusa Hayano, a Japanese geologist who volunteers in the forest. He speaks in Japanese about its significance to locals. He describes it as a beautiful place. He discusses how discarded items and suicide notes indicate hesitance, rather than marveling at their oddity.
Most notably, he speaks to a person in a tent who might have come there to commit suicide. He asks them how long they were planning to stay. He tries to reach them with the practiced nuance of a long-time counselor. He leaves hopeful that talking may have changed their mind.
He ends his video showing a shrine, adorned with flowers and chocolates by those a victim left behind. “You think you die alone,” he says, “but that’s not true.”
The video also features several pictures of corpses found in the forest. And yet, none of these images feel like Logan Paul’s crass mockery. Vice shows proper respect. They show it, not by declaring a good intent or claiming seriousness, but by letting a Japanese volunteer dictate the experience. The documentarians themselves do not speak.
Comments praise “Exploring with Josh” for the respect he shows the forest in contrast to Paul. But even with no corpses, his garbled research and sinister shots of Aokigahara don’t acknowledge the beauty or solemnity that Azusa Hayano recognized in the Jukai. Josh and his ilk treat the place as something cut off and cursed, full of menace. Hayano shows us a gnarled root of Japan’s consciousness, rough to the touch but still a part of its whole.
Vice released their short documentary in 2012. At the time, Hayano did not predict that foreigners would come to this reverent place and play with Ouija boards for view counts.
This article originally appeared in the print edition of our January 2018, issue.