WASHINGTON, August 19, 2012 - Aokigahara forest is unusually dark, quiet, and still. The vegetation is extremely dense; the numerous trees block out most of the light, even in the middle of the day. The trees also block the wind, and there is little wildlife to be seen or heard. Perhaps for this reason Aokigahara has been thought to be the realm of demons in Japanese mythology. Perhaps for this reason as well it is a popular place for suicides, second only to Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in the number of suicides per year.
Aokigahara, also known as the Jukai or “Sea of Trees,” is a 14 m2 patch of forest at the northwest base of Mount Fuji. It is one of the few virgin forests still left in Japan today. The ground is mostly volcanic rock; hard, covered with moss, and dotted with holes and caverns. Part of Aokigahara is located within the Mount Fuji area currently seeking accreditation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There are several stories and legends associated with Aokigahara. Adding to the general foreboding atmosphere, many claim that there is a large underground iron deposit that renders compasses useless. It is said that this is one of the reasons so many get lost in the woods and never come out.
Jukai has been linked to ancient demons in Japanese myths. Some consider Aokigahara a type of purgatory for yurei, the ghosts of those who died too early or suddenly. The forest is also said to have been a site for ubasute, literally meaning “abandoning an old woman,” during the famines that gripped the area in the 19th century. Ubasute is the practice of leaving an ill or elderly family member in the forest to die of exposure, starvation, or dehydration. It was more commonly practiced during difficult economic times and times of famine.
Aokigahara has always been a place associated with death and darkness. Some claim that the trees themselves are repositories for the negative energy associated with so many suicides and death. Others believe that evil spirits in the forest put ideas of suicide in people’s heads and won’t let them leave the forest.
Many attribute the site’s popularity as a place to commit suicide to a 1960s novel by Seichō Matsumoto, where a couple meets their end in Aokigahara forest. However, there are reports of people going to Aokigahara to commit suicide before the novel was published. Others attribute an increase in the number of suicides to Wataru Tsurumui’s description of Jukai as “the perfect place to die” in his 1993 book The Complete Manual of Suicide. Both books are often found along with human remains in the forest.
Most people who commit suicide in Aokigahara do so by means of hanging, alcohol, or medication. A few try to inhale carbon dioxide in their cars parked along the forest edge, or from charcoal grills that they bring with them. Very few resort to slitting their wrists or using firearms. When violent deaths present themselves, the authorities always consider foul play, since Aokigahara is nothing short of the ideal place to dispose of a body.
Park rangers and visitors often find only bones, if that. Remnants of provisional campsites tell the story of what happened and who the person was. Shoes, tents, clothing, wallets, documents, photographs- people leave all kinds of things behind. Locals tell stories of distraught family members roaming the forest in search of a loved one or some belonging they may have left behind.
Authorities conduct an annual sweep of the forest, searching for bodies. This has been happening since the early 1970s. Suicides are so numerous that rangers have trouble finding places to store the bodies found in the forest. In the ranger station there is a room specifically for this purpose.
For years the number of suicides remained steady, at around 20 bodies found every year. However, numbers jumped to 57 in 1994 and steadily climbed to an all-time high of 108 in 2004. Lately the prefecture stopped publishing the number of suicides in the forest in an effort to discourage others. Unofficial numbers still emerge.
In any case, there is no way to know exactly how many people commit suicide at Jukai, since many remains are never found or are destroyed and scattered by animals.
Suicide numbers are so high that in 2009 the Yamanashi prefecture, where Jukai is located, began employing staff to watch the forest and trails and speak to anyone who appeared to be in the forest contemplating suicide. The prefecture also provides local residents with training to counsel potential suicides. Several signs can be found along the forest trails: “life is a precious gift from your parents,” “please reconsider,” “don’t keep your worries to yourself. Please talk to us (plus a telephone number)”
Another striking feature of Aokigahara is the large amount of multicolored tape, ropes, and ribbons tied to trees and leading into the forest, marking someone’s path. The forest has become a kind of destination for thrill seekers, but the topography is so confusing that many use these as markers to eventually find their way out.
Other strings belong to people who have gone into the forest without having made up their minds whether to commit suicide. Yet other markers belong to body recovery patrols to indicate that a certain area has already been searched.
The amount of tape left over from all these visitors is beginning to cause a problem, especially along the outer edges of the forest. The tangle of tape is so thick in certain spots that it may be endangering the ecosystem.
Even though the prefecture employs a crew that regularly removes and disposes of the tape, there is always more as Aokigahara grows in notoriety.
Japan’s suicide rate is among the highest in the world, worsened by the recent world economic crisis. Every year there is a spike in suicides during the month of March, which marks the end of Japan’s fiscal year. The Japanese government has vowed to cut the number of suicides by 20% by the year 2016, employing several education, counseling, and outreach programs.
However, many say that the suicides will not stop unless the economy improves and people can find stable jobs. Until then, Aokigahara’s popularity as a perfect place to die will continue to grow.
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