Saturday, 31 May 2008

Loren Coleman, cryptozoologist


Loren Coleman is a well-known 'cryptozoologist' and expert on suicide behaviour. He is the author of several books, including "The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates" and "The Copycat Effect." I interviewed him by telephone in his office in Portland, Maine, on the 26th of February, 2008, and spoke to him for 34 minutes. Following his request, I also 'cleaned up' the interview.


CBL: Regarding cryptozoology, most people's first idea is that Japan is such a crowded island that it would be unlikely to find new and undiscovered forms of life. What do you think about that?

LC: Well, I think that your assumption that you're repeating from the general public is true, but I'm well aware that there are different cryptozoological reports from Japan, and there has been down through the years.

CBL: But what about the perception that Japan is this very overcrowded island, so that everything that is there should be known by now? Do you think that holds up?

LC: Well, I think that even most Americans now understand that there's different parts of Japan. There's urban centers in Japan and then there's more wild areas that cryptids like the Honshu Wolf, the Hibagon, and the Tsuchinoko could still exist in. It may be a misperception among people who aren't well educated that Japan is overly crowded, but most North Americans understand that Japan is very diverse.

CBL: Living here, that's my perception, that there are places that are, as people expect, very, very crowded, but there are also other areas that are almost completely left alone, and then there's also the aspect of ocean life with the very deep waters around Japan, so there is a lot of room for the unexpected to occur.

LC: All of the legends from the Devil's Triangle and sea serpents to ships missing and different things like that are pretty well known too.

CBL: I'm also interested in the factors that determine which creatures are not fully known, not just physical factors like environment, like having a large unexplored area in which to live and hide, but cultural factors. Often, you might get cryptids living in areas next to communities that are maybe not so developed scientifically, or which have a certain kind of culture or mythology, which, in a way, helps that animal to remain partly known but not completely known.

LC: Well. I think that's very true. I mean you have the Ainu, a dying native people of Japan, and I think, even among Japanese, the folklore of the Ainu is relatively unknown, but you come across some parts of their folklore. American culture, European culture, and Japanese culture can make their own assumptions about what’s there, even though to the Ainu, it may have a completely different meaning.

CBL: Western scientific based culture has this urge to classify and specify things, and some other cultures don’t have that. They're maybe more happy to allow something to have a peripheral existence and not to be brought into focus, to sort of exist in the corner of our eye.

LC: Well, that's very true. What you state about Western culture may look scientific from the outside, but from my fifty years of being involved, there are just as many Americans that will say silly things like the reason we don't know about Big Foot is because they can become invisible or that they're practicing telepathy. So I think even within the strict, more scientific American culture, you'll often get these very borderline kind of theories that have nothing to do with bio-science. When we go to Japan and try to study something like the kappa, imp-like creatures who live in lakes and rivers, the question is are they part of folklore or are they real animals that haven't been discovered? And I think the unfortunate thing that most ethnocentric cultures do is that they try to put their own values on another culture.

CBL: That's also a problem with cryptozoology in Japan. Comparatively recently Japan adopted our Western scientific approach to things. Less than two hundred years ago they had a completely different culture, which was much more based upon traditional ideas of animism and mythology, so a lot of times in Japan, you're dealing with folklore or mythology, rather than cryptozoology, aren't you?

LC: Oh definitely. I studied the whole period from 1945 to about 1950 in Japan, where a lot of their science fiction and a lot of their cryptozoology overlapped, so that most of the explanations had to do with the atomic bomb and radiation and mutation. So that very harsh period of the post war in many ways transferred from that calmer, mythological, spiritual sense of these creatures into where we have today. The whole tradition of Godzilla really comes out of that, that these aren't creatures that were cryptic. They're more creatures that were produced by atomic and hydrogen bombs.

CBL: So that gets in the way of finding and identifying new species and creates that cultural space for them to hide.

LC: Right. I've actually had two groups of Japanese cryptozoological researchers come over and visit me, and what I notice is that they came out of a UFO-based/ mutation kind of framework before they were really cryptozoologists. The extra-terrestrial, 1947-kind-of flying saucer culture seems to have taken hold in Japan before the cryptozoological framework.

CBL: Generally, there's a lot of fascination with that aspect, for example, the very large pictograms at Nazca is something they're very interested in. They're always looking for a greater significance to the universe, so there's a great hunger for those kinds of theories, no matter how outlandish.

LC: From my understanding of Japan those kind of outlandish theories, including the existence of the island of Mu and the ancient astronaut theory, are very interesting for them, so, to try to talk to them about abominable snowmen or sea serpents or lake monsters has really been an uphill battle. But on the other hand the Japanese were one of the first people to go over to over to Loch Ness with submarines. So, that's the other side of Japanese culture. They tend to really use technology. They were, in some ways, in the forefront of using technology to try to understand cryptids in a way that only Americans and British and Scottish people caught up to later.

CBL: Getting away from folklore and myth and focusing on the evidence that there is something that hasn't really been fully discovered, what do you think are the most realistic candidates for something to actually be discovered later in Japan?

LC: I think that the Japanese universe of cryptids is a really interesting thing. It goes all the way from the Hibagon, which is this ape-like creature that's supposed to haunt the mountains, as being very unlikely, all the way to the Tsuchinoko, which are the small, normal-sized snakes that seem to be vipers and venomous. Some of those stories seem to be much more realistic with good eye-witness accounts and officials interested in them, and hunts being organized. There are even some old drawings and the possibility that in the 17th century there may actually have been some captured and mentioned in scientific journals in Japan. Then there are populations of wolves on certain islands, that may actually be 'extinct' wolf species that are still surviving. So I feel there is a real continuum in the accounts that I hear about from Japan, all the way from the fantastic and creatures like kappa that really don’t have any tangible evidence, all the way to the wolves and snakes which may actually exist.

CBL: The ones that are more likely to exist are usually the less interesting ones, aren't they?

LC: Right. The lesser cryptids don't get all of the publicity, but they're actually the ones that are probably much more realistic.

CBL: With the Hibagon, that sounds like a local version of the Yeti. It's like they heard about the Big Foot and the Yeti and they've transposed that to Japan in some way. Then there's a lake monster down in Kagoshima, in Lake Ikeda, which sounds very similar to Nessie.

LC: Right. Very much so. I think that there's a lot of copycat syndrome that goes on, where people really see there's a lot of excitement about Big Foot or the Yeti. They hear different things and they kind of localize it. Actually there was a very famous movie "Half Human" made in 1957 that was supposedly about the Yeti in Japan. It was by Ishiro Honda, who went on to do Godzilla later. But his first film that he did, his first science fiction film, was about a Yeti in Japan.

CBL: Certainly since the Meiji revolution, Japan has wholesale imported technologies and mythologies, things like Christmas and Halloween, so I wouldn't be surprised by that. It's just interesting how they sometimes give it a local twist. Changing the subject, you're also very well known for your work on copycat suicides and cults, both areas that have relevance to Japan, which, as you no doubt know, is the leading country in the world for internet suicide groups.

LC: Right, in my book I did include some cults, where people would go to certain beaches and kill themselves. Some of those cultic kind of suicides have certainly occurred in Japan.

CBL: Yes, it's interesting that they do have certain areas where suicides actually go to kill themselves, and one of them is in the vicinity of Mt. Fuji. Those remote, isolated, romantic-sounding places often attract this kind of behaviour.

LC: In my book, I do a whole section on Japanese places that are very special, like Saipan, where there were lots of suicides right after the war, and I do talk about the forests around Mt. Fuji, which increasingly have suicides occur there, so much so that according to some research I did, the police have to go in there and remove bodies once in while.

CBL: You mention suicides in Saipan after the war? Can you tell me a bit more about that?

LC: Americans may over-dramatize the suicides that occurred when the war was ending, the whole business about shame and losing face, but what I bring up to date in the book is that many relatives, after the war, would take boat tours to Saipan, they would take the boats over there and kill themselves by jumping off the cliffs. So it continued after the war. That's the special-ness of the places that I was reffering to around Mt. Fuji and around Saipan. It's still seen as a place to go and kill yourself.

CBL: So, why do you think they would do that? What would be their motivation to actually go to the location?

LC: There were special places around the World, like Golden Gate Bridge. Fifty per cent of the people who die on the Golden Gate Bridge have to cross the Bay Bridge to get there. They don’t jump off the Bay Bridge. They go across, because it's the magnetism of certain areas and sites that for no rational reason they just become fixated on. There's places in England like that. There's a bridge in Quebec. In other words, there are just these locations, usually like cliffs and bridges and mountains, that become special in this way. There's a definite connection to height of the places.

CBL: I guess with the Golden Gate Bridge, it has a connotation of the kind of golden gates of heaven, as well, for a lot of people.

LC: It's a very beautiful place to die, according to the way people who have survived to talk about it. You're standing on the bridge. You look out over the ocean. It's just extremely beautiful, and when you're in so much pain that you want to die, you want to die beautifully I guess.

CBL: But with the suicides in Saipan after the war, there it sounds like they wanted to be with the people who were dead already.

LC: Right. That was more the connection to ancestors. That's very much a cultural thing that I deal with in the book. I think harakiri has been overblown in American culture and we don't really understand it, but deep down underneath it, there is a sense of shame and honor and a connection to ancestors that certainly is very prevalent in Japanese culture. For Japanese, it's very much connected.

CBL: It's also due to differing religious views as well, because the traditional view in Western society is that if you die you go somewhere. Maybe in Japan it's a bit different because of the animism. Maybe there's a lingering belief that you don't actually go anywhere. You just hang around, usually at the place where you left your body. I mean, that's very apparent at funerals. When people go to funerals here, after they come back, people throw salt at them to scare off the spirits of the dead who might have followed them home.

LC: I see. Well, I think the other extreme American view is that suicide is sinful, and I think it's certainly my understanding of the Japanese culture that it's not put in those harsh religious tones.

CBL: Now, in your work on the copycat effect, did you come across things like the otaku culture and the hikikomori phenomenon?

LC: I'm not sure. I might have written about them in a different way.

CBL: Well the hikikomori, they're basically people who disconnect themselves from society in Japan, and they do that in the most obvious sort of way, which is to stay in their rooms and to exist in a virtual world of computer games or whatever, so as to just not deal with other people. There are variations of that. For example, there's also something called sotokomori, which are Japanese people who actually go overseas because living overseas disconnects them from society also. It's all connected to the otaku culture which is people who become obsessive about something, something like computer games or comics. Also, another aspect of the otaku culture is the internet and communicating in a virtual way and then that kind of feeds into things like internet suicide clubs as well.

LC: No, I did not specifically get into that. In many ways, while the book came out in 2004 and though it was really written in 2003, I noticed that there had been this whole explosion of the internet suicide phenomenon after the book came out. But the otaku culture sounds like most writers that I know. In my book, I talked about the 1986 wave of suicides connected to a Japanese singing idol, Yukiko Okada, where she climbed to the 7th floor of her recording studio building and jumped off, and that led to a wave of suicides of teenagers jumping off buildings. That was an example of the more or less traditional suicidal cult caused by a lot of media fanning the flames of what was going on. Then I also wrote about the kamikaze, a form of suicide that was really in many ways classic brainwashing, where they were taken to certain islands to be indoctrinated.

CBL: Do you think there's something in Japanese culture or society that makes them susceptible to that kind of group nihilism?

LC: No. I think that that's cultural bias, I really do. I think there's just as much in Western countries. I mean Heaven's Gate and the Solar Order of the Solar Temple, and so on. There was even Jonestown, the phenomenon of African Americans in the San Francisco area moving to South America committing mass suicide. So I think that in almost any culture you can find a portion of the population that certainly will go in the direction of giving the control of their lives to someone else. I write about that in my cultic copycat chapter, where it really is those people who are often vulnerable and may have committed suicide on their own, who decide to do it as a group.

CBL: So the factors that determine it - apart from something like the kamikaze thing, which was tied to exigencies of the war - are that certain people are predisposed to suicide and that when they get into a group, that just triggers it off, and that is something that could happen anywhere.

LC: Right, it can happen anywhere. It can be very self-reinforcing, once you’re in that cult.

CBL: Right now, the example I'm aware of is in Wales, the town of Bridgend, there seem to be a lot of teenagers who seem to be behaving in this way, copying each other and committing suicide.

LC: Yes, exactly. I was actually interviewed by "The Independent" and "The Times" about that, and I've been in the papers quite a bit because they are now blaming the media for everything that's going on. The parents are erupting and yelling at the media people as they're coming round, so in Wales, the situation has really got out of hand.

CBL: But of course there are certain factors in cultures and societies that can actually reinforce this sort of inherent tendency among certain groups. Like in Japan, for example, the fact that they do have this otaku culture which encourages people to associate through the internet or not at all must be a reinforcing factor.

LC: Certainly in any culture you'll find certain mean behaviors, I mean average behaviors, and outside of those you'll tend to find individuals being reinforced in their tendency to suicide. One of the major morbid factors is isolation. If you have a culture or part of a culture that is reinforcing isolation that can strengthen this tendency. Also, as I said before, one of the things you've got going in Japan is that they are very culturally aware and technologically tuned in, so, if you have a culture that is wiring itself to the internet and reinforcing isolation, you may slowly get a higher rate of suicides that are quote unquote, "caused by internet communication." The copycat factor there can be quite high. I've seen waves of it going through England and certainly even some of the classic examples from America, where, after Marilyn Monroe died, a hundred-and-ninety-seven women killed themselves. We've also seen that with Kurt Cobain. And now you can see that in the internet age when certain methods, for example the use of charcoal grills inside automobiles, has been reinforced and spread by people talking about it on the internet. In Asia there are also texts being produced on how to do it. The instantaneous communication of the Internet certainly lends itself to the speed up in the copy-cat effect.

CBL: The Internet is famous for its ability to spread things in a viral way, but this suicide copycat phenomenon is like a mental virus, isn't it?

LC: Yes, the whole meme idea, the whole notion that it's like dropping a rock in a pond with the ripple effect.

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