Logan Paul’s racist actions have a context and also a history.
Last week, a white man named Logan Paul traveled to Aokigahara (青木ヶ原), a sacred forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji in Japan where many Japanese people have historically died by suicide. There, he (surprise!) discovered the corpse of a Japanese suicide victim hanging from a tree, and proceeded to visually record and upload this experience to his public YouTube page.
Paul made sure to provide personal commentary on his video as well: this commentary, in addition to making racial slurs about the victim, openly mocked his dead body and made tasteless jokes about the act of suicide.
In the days of internet backlash that followed this event, it was subsequently discovered that Paul was in fact a minor YouTube celebrity with a long track record of making racist videos and commentary, especially about Japanese and East Asian people more broadly. In a series of earlier videos, Paul is shown shouting and making a commotion at a quiet temple where Japanese people are praying, throwing coins at them and making a mockery of their spiritual rituals.
The image of him laughing at the corpse of a dead Japanese person was thus a clear extension of his general view of Japan: a country populated by sub-humans who mainly exist for his own entertainment.
Logan Paul’s racist actions have a context and also a history. The image of a white man laughing at the corpse of a dead Japanese person reminded me of this famous photograph, taken sometime during the latter years of World War II, which depicts a white American soldier grinning at the skull of a “Jap” he had evidently murdered, and inserting a cigarette into the skull’s mouth for humorous effect.
It also reminded me of how, during the same war, white American soldiers would frequently send the bones and bodily remains of Japanese soldiers they had killed back home to their wives and families as trophies of their conquest. There is a famous image of this phenomenon that was once featured on the cover of Life magazine, depicting a white woman sitting pensively at her desk, pen in hand, presumably writing a letter to her white soldier husband fighting in Japan, as she contemplates a “Jap” skull he had evidently sent her as a memento and token of his love for her, and of his country. She gazes at the skull fondly, lost in thought.
Logan Paul didn’t kill the man whose dead body he filmed and circulated on YouTube, and the United States is no longer at war with Japan. But that Japanese man’s body played a similar role for Paul as the Japanese skull did for that white soldier all those years ago. It became a souvenir, a trophy, a memento. And, in the age of the internet, it became the electronic equivalent of a trophy: a meme.
In his moment of triumph, Logan Paul had marched like a brave soldier into the deep, dark mysteries of the Orient and emerged victoriously with his prize, not to disappoint his loyal YouTube followers. And a corpse is what he was sending home as proof of his victory.
Of course, Japanese people aren’t the only people of color that white people have terrorized in this way. Similar examples of white people defaming the bodies of deceased people of color by parading around with their remains for the purposes of entertainment can be found in almost any chapter of American history.
We know the horrifying histories of lynching enacted by white people upon black and indigenous people. We know how they made a spectacle of their death and gathered together to laugh at the maimed bodies. We know that the U.S. has gone to war with nearly every country on earth, and treated their war dead in a similar fashion. Yet here we are. 2018 has just begun and people of color, even in death, can have no respite from the terror of white supremacy.
I could write more—about the history of Aokigahara, how it came to be known as the “suicide forest,” or sometimes simply the “sea of trees,” about the eery, quiet beauty of the place, about how Mt. Fuji has, since ancient times, been considered a deity in Japanese culture, about the intense social stigmas around mental health in Japan that has lead to a disproportionate amount of Japanese people dying by suicide every year, about how these numbers keep increasing, about the kind of desperation that drives a person to walk into the woods with a flashlight and a rope and never emerge again.
But I won’t, because I’m tired of white supremacy. And because I carry histories of suicide in my own family. And because Mt. Fuji, I know, protects the dead that lie peacefully at her feet amid the sea of trees, even the ones whose bodies are never found.