A collection of shoes, presumably from those who have taken their lives, inside Aokigahara forest.

The Aokigahara Forest of Japan: Many Enter, But Few Walk Out Alive

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The Aokigahara forest is situated on the north-western side of Japan’s famous Mount Fuji.  Over the centuries, many people have entered the forest, but fewer have left it. This is because, sadly, the forest is notorious for being one of the most popular places in the world to commit suicide. As a matter of fact, the number of people taking their own lives in this forest is reported to be second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Did a Novel First Give People the Idea to End Their Lives in Aokigahara?

In 1960, a novel by the name of Kuroi Jukai (translated as ‘Black Sea of Trees’) was written by Seicho Matsumoto. The novel ends with a pair of lovers committing suicide in Aokigahara. Many people believe that as a result of this novel, the forest became a popular place for people wishing to end their lives. This is not entirely true, however, as it was common for people to commit suicide in Aokigahara long before the novel was published.

The forest has long been associated with dark legends, folklore, and historic tales. There are stories that the forest was used as a site for ubasate (roughly translated as ‘abandoning the old woman’), a form of euthanasia in which an elderly member of the family is left in a remote area to die (either from starvation, dehydration or exposure to the elements). This was believed to have been done during times of extreme famine so as to reduce the number of mouths to feed.  

The jacket of a suicide victim hangs on a branch in Aokigahara forest. Credit: Richard Atrero de Guzaman

The jacket of a suicide victim hangs on a branch in Aokigahara forest. Credit: Richard Atrero de Guzaman

Ancient Traditions Still Practiced by the Suicide Patrol

It has been reported that each year, about 70 corpses of suicide victims are discovered by volunteers who patrol Aokigahara. The number of people that succeed in ending their lives is assumed to be much higher, considering that the bodies of many more victims may never be found. The bodies found by the volunteers are taken down from the forest to the local station, where they are placed in a room used specifically for suicide victims.  Following an ancient tradition, someone has to stay with the corpses during the night, as it is believed that if the bodies are left alone, it would be very bad for their spirits. It has been rumoured that the spirits of these victims would scream during the night, and that their bodies would move on their own.  

Spirits of the Dead

As a result of so many deaths occurring in Aokigahara, Japanese spiritualists believe that the forest is haunted. The spirits of the dead are thought to enter the trees, thus causing paranormal activity to happen. These spirits are reputed to be hostile, and would prevent people from leaving the forest. It has also been pointed out that the area’s volcanic soil is rich in deposits of magnetic iron, which may cause compasses to malfunction. As this is a common experience, visitors have been strongly advised to stay on the trails, lest they get lost. Many visitors loop tape around trees so as to mark their route, and avoid getting lost.

A religious figure bound to a tree in Aokigahara, where someone ended their live. Credit: Rob Gilhooly

A religious figure bound to a tree in Aokigahara, where someone ended their live. Credit: Rob Gilhooly

Why So Many?

The high number of suicide cases in Aokigahara may be said to reflect the alarming situation in the rest of the country. According to the World Health Organisation, the suicide rate in Japan is 25.8 per 100,000 people, which makes it the highest amongst developed nations. Furthermore, the number of suicides has been on the rise every year. The lack of adequate support networks to help those contemplating suicide has been identified as one of the key factors contributing to this.  

Tackling the Suicide Pandemic

Japanese authorities decided to stop publishing the exact number of suicides in 2004, after a total of 105 suicides were recorded the previous year. This was intended to stop the glorification of suicide, and to prevent the place from becoming even more popular. Moreover, in a bid to discourage people from committing suicide, signboards reading “Your life is a precious gift from your parents.” and “Please consult the police before you decide to die!” have been set up by the police in the forest.

A sign pleads with visitors not to consider suicide as they enter the forest.

A sign pleads with visitors not to consider suicide as they enter the forest. ( Aokigahara Forest )

Although the situation may be depressing, all is not lost at Aokigahara. Vigilant shopkeepers at the site, do what they can to help those entering the forest with the intention of taking their own lives. Hideo Watanabe, who owns a lakeside café facing an entrance to the forest, for instance, would approach those who look like they intend to commit suicide in the forest, and talk to them. He is reported to have saved around 160 people over the last three decades. Volunteer anti-suicide patrols also scour the forest day and night in the hope of finding someone before it is too late.  It is through efforts like these that more unnecessary loss of life through suicide may be prevented.

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