A two-hour drive from Tokyo, just north-west of Mount Fuji, lurks the sombre sprawl of Aokigahara forest.
The Japanese call it Jukai, the ‘Sea of Trees’, for it is dense with softly swaying thickets and devouring tides of silence and solitude.
Across 12 square miles of lava rock, Mongolian oaks and hinoki cypresses loom over mossy verdure and even occasional brakes of cherry blossom and longstalk holly cannot fleck warmth on the vast, bleak beauty. A menacing quiet testifies to the near-absence of wildlife and even the lilting song of the uguisu, the native bush warbler, comes in melancholy tones.
This haunting quality both inspires and is amplified by Aokigahara’s gruesome status as one of the world’s leading suicide spots. Every year around 100 people hike into the forest and never leave, casualties of Japan’s endemic levels of suicide. In 2016, 21,897 ended their lives, 500 of them children or teenagers.
Depression, unemployment, and financial despair are the most commonly cited motivations, as well as a cultural tradition which sees a steely nobility in the ultimate act of self-control.
Why so many choose the woods beneath Fuji to escape their demons is a mystery but folklore holds the forest to be haunted by the spirits of the sick and aged taken there and left to die by uncaring families. More likely, it is the seclusion and the serenity. Nature does not judge.
Whatever the reason, Aokigahara has earned a grim reputation as the Eden of the end. With that has come a macabre tourism, as backpackers travel to explore the notorious jungle. They can now count among their number a celebrity. Logan Paul, a YouTube personality with 15 million subscribers, has gone from social media wunderkind to global pariah in the last week.
Travelling in Japan over the New Year, Paul uploaded a vlog titled ‘We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest’. The video shows Paul and his crew trekking through the heaving maze of groves and coppices, ostensibly to scare themselves silly by spending the night in a ghost-stalked bush.
As they search for a campsite, they are stopped in their tracks and Paul, sporting a lurid green Toy Story beanie, approaches a clearing. His eyes bulge in stupor and his milky Midwest complexion drains to ashen pallor, then with the glibness of a 22-year-old who has made a career out of online stunts, he announces: ‘Um, I really hate to say this but I think there’s someone hanging right there.’
There is fear in his voice but something else registers: Thrill, an almost giddy twinge of this-is-big. Even in the near lawless state of nature that governs social media, depictions of the recently deceased are rare, at least on mainstream sites like YouTube.
Paul goes in for a close-up, jabbering in the limited vocabulary of a millennial as he coldly inspects a human corpse. (The version I watched blacked out images of deceased; I couldn’t bring myself to view the original.)
He shares awkward jokes and nervous laughter with his companions before they call the police and hike back to the car park, where Paul meets some local fans, delivers an inarticulate but well-meant anti-suicide monologue, then perks up to remind viewers to subscribe for more videos. It is 15 minutes of soul-defiling wretchedness.
Within 24 hours, the video garnered more than six million views. Then the backlash began, with Paul accused of gross insensitivity, disrespect for the dead, and growing his celebrity off the back of human misery. He removed the video and has now issued two apologies, perhaps because he is sincerely sorry or perhaps because his £10million empire now looks at risk of collapse.
It is a cautionary tale of the fragility of fame but the larger story is of the unfiltered morass of social media and its uncanny ability to bring out the worst in its users. A week ago, ‘swatting’ claimed its latest victim when Kansas police surrounded the home of Andrew Finch and one officer, mistakenly believing Finch was armed, shot the father-of-two dead on his doorstep.
He had been ‘swatted’, a score-settling practice in the online gaming world in which hoaxers call in false firearms and explosives incidents at the homes of their rivals and livestream the ensuing chaos. Human life is cheap when there are clicks to gain and points to win.
The era of unregulated social media is over. If Islamist propaganda and abusive trolls did not win the argument for greater controls, the Logan Paul video and the death of Andrew Finch will. Time is running out for these platforms to properly police themselves and, if they fail to, statutory regulation seems inevitable.
Social media no more turns us into callous voyeurs than listening to N.W.A. compels us to attack the police or watching Texas Chain Saw Massacre pushes us to become the next Ed Gein. We are the same creatures we always were.
YouTube does not create wickedness; it merely accentuates it. Facebook does not reconfigure us as vain, paranoid and angry; it gives these character traits a platform — and incentives. Twitter does not make us idiots; it has simply handed idiocy a megaphone. We are all publishers without an editor and social media the world’s biggest vanity press.
Narcissism is not new and nor is cold indifference to the lives of strangers. Where these behaviours are checked in the physical world, moral boundaries are more malleable in the digital arena. That doesn’t change our character but it does make it easier for our values to change. Many revile Logan Paul but others see him as a visionary. He has gained 350,000 subscribers in the last seven days.
Paul has ‘stepped away’ from social media now and maybe the rest of us should follow suit. Switch off the computer. Delete your apps. Go out and meet people. Make friends, fall in love, fall back out of love, and start all over again. Do something, build something, learn something, play something. Try to remember that social media is not who we are, just how we talk, and the people we encounter are more than followers and clickbait fodder. People are people.
This week’s column isn’t the lightest and had me in a funk about this whole humanity business. Maybe Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un should just test their differently-sized nuclear buttons and get it over with.
Then I popped out to check the post and was greeted by a huge golden pastry, festooned with cherries and candied fruit peelings and crowned with a gleaming cardboard diadem. An accompanying card explained that this was a roscón de reyes, a King’s Cake, the traditional dessert eaten in Spain on the Epiphany.
This regal treat had been left by Daniel and Maria, the young Spanish couple next door who wanted to share their festival with their neighbours.
It was a small gesture but it told me three things I needed to hear: 1) Most people are good and decent, 2) Reports of the death of neighbourliness have been greatly exaggerated, and 3) Whatever comes of Brexit, EU citizens know they belong here.
At last, Theresa May has seen sense and dropped plans for a free vote on repealing the hunting ban. The policy proved horrifically unpopular at the General Election and played to old stereotypes about the Tories as heartless posh boys. Now the party should unite in pursuit of its real quarry: Jeremy Corbyn.
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