Logan Paul: Asian Suicide is Not Your Entertainment
The loudest bang of 2017’s New Year’s Eve came not from fireworks, but from reckless voyeurism of an American tourist in Japan. In a video titled “We Found a Dead Body in the Japanese Suicide Forest…,” 22-year-old American vlogger Logan Paul flippantly filmed and offered unsolicited commentary on a suicide victim’s body hanging in the Aokighara forest.
The Aokighara forest has housed upwards of a hundred suicides per year since the end of World War II. The quiet isolation of the dense forestry has earned the title of “the perfect place to die” according to Atlas Obscura. Suicide occurs all throughout Japan, with 22,000 people dying by suicide in 2016 alone. The New York Times suggests that a culture of bullying and perfectionism in work and school culture has contributed to Japan’s long-standing suicide crisis, in addition to a lack of universal access to mental healthcare and the media’s glorification of suicide as the only viable escape from life’s toils.
Instead of inviting Japanese people to describe their suicide crisis themselves, Paul films his blonde gaze front and center throughout his video. Paul somberly stares into his high-quality camera, hands in pocket, speaking in such an apologetic way that is grossly reminiscent of invasive mission-work commercials that portray African and other non-white people as helpless victims in need of a white savior. Paul described the “realness” of his video and made brief warnings about suicide content. Perhaps white-savior arrogance makes Paul think he is a more “real” spokesperson for a phenomenon for which he is a pure amateur than Japanese people themselves.
While Paul’s rubbernecking at another country’s tragedy is inexcusable, it would be incorrect to attribute Japanese and Asian suicide voyeurism only to Paul. Paul’s voyeurism is a side effect of the generations-long trend of trivializing Asian suicide as American entertainment. Logan Paul’s tourism in an Asian person’s tragedy is not at all unfamiliar to Asians like myself who have sat through countless tales of Asian tragedies being treated as American fetish.
The racist but award-winning Broadway musical Miss Saigon in 1989 remodeled Puccini’s classically orientalist play Madame Butterfly for 20th-century white rubberneckers of Asian suicide. In the play, Vietnamese protagonist Kim shoots herself so her son could have two white parents instead of one Vietnamese single mother (after Kim’s white husband forgot he was married to her and abandoned her and his son to marry a white woman). This is the true happy ending in the Broadway fairytale: Who would dare want to be an Asian woman’s child when one can instead have a white (albeit selfish) nuclear family?
While only recently have white social media users started to pay attention to the whitewashing and subordinating of Asian roles in film, poet Rachel Rostad pointed out five years ago the pathetic silent crybaby roles of Asian characters in her viral spoken word piece, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang.”
American media has already trivialized the Aokighara forest as the horror film The Forest hit box offices in 2016 with the Aokighara forest set as a booby trap obstacle course for a pretty blonde protagonist (sound familiar, Logan Paul?). Even some Star Wars fans were up in arms about Rose (portrayed by Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Tran) existing in the franchise as not silent or submissive, but instead as a hero that doesn’t end up getting killed off
Film and literature do not stand alone in fetishizing Asian depression for white American audiences. Researchers So Yoon Yoon and Marcia Gentry found in 2009 that Asian students in the US were overrepresented in public schools’ gifted and talented programs while other minorities were overrepresented in remedial and other special education programs.
At first glance, this seems like Asians have an advantage over white people, as they seem to receive an advanced education in the gifted program. When public schools introduced the gifted and talented program in the 1970s, what looked to be a beneficial educational program based on merit was often regarded as a remedial program for students whose social skills lagged behind their intellectual developments, aimed to accommodate students who would receive the “nerd” or “geek” title in a regular classroom.
Asians began to occupy an overwhelming number of spots in the gifted programs in 1978, amid of the influx of Chinese and Vietnamese refugees escaping various Communist revolutions in Asia. White Americans renewed their anti-Asian sentiments with Vietnam-war Communism-phobia and curbed de-segregation laws by segregating Asians into the gifted classes, perpetuating the stereotype that Asians innately lacked the gregarious sociability of their white peers.
From childhood, we pummel Americans with the idea that Asian Americans exist as a separate, foreign kind of people rather than as a peer. As I’m studying to become a teacher, I read tons of research about Asian and Asian-American students experiencing bullying at higher rates than their peers. While looking at American race relations, this racism in the form of bullying does not equate to the deadly violence which black students experience, but does evidence that Asians take a subordinate role in American racial dynamics.
With the systematic isolation of Asian-American youth, it is no surprise that white Americans do not view Asians with suicidal depression sympathetically as they would if one of their own peers or family members were to experience suicidal depression. During the most crucial and vulnerable developmental stages, the US trains white students to view their Asian peers as the “other,” the robotic nerds separated into their own class of people.
Logan Paul isn’t the only person to blame for his voyeuristic behavior. He shares responsibility with anyone who has gazed at an Asian neighbor as some alien specimen, assuming they won’t understand your language or they lack the capacity to socialize and emote. Asians have lived in and contributed to American society for over a century and a half—it’s time for the Western world to listen to Asians instead of diminishing them as porn material for suicide fetish.
One professor in my undergrad advised his students to talk to rather than about people that are different from you. This is exactly the advice that Logan Paul and other white rubberneckers of Asian suicide need to hear: if you wish to raise awareness about Asian suicide, hand your microphone to the survivors of Asian depression and suicide rather than gawking at the deceased.
Amy Gu is an aspiring teacher and an unyielding advocate for underdogs. Between graduate school, daycare work, and volunteering at the animal shelter, Amy sips coffee and Chinese green tea with her cat-children in Austin, Texas.