The Aokigahara Forest of Japan: Many Enter, But Few Walk Out Alive
The Aokigahara forest is situated on the north-western side of Japan’s famous Mount Fuji. It was born 1,100 years ago, when Mount Fuji erupted, spewing out lava for miles which later transformed into the 12-square-mile forest. For centuries, it was worshiped as a sacred place that enshrined dragons and water gods. Today, it is a picturesque scene – giant trees, twisting tree roots, moss-covered rocks, hidden caves and winding forest trails attract visitors from far and wide. But not everyone goes there to see the forest. Sightseers with a morbid fascination visit the woods to see dead people.
Aokigahara forest is notorious for being one of the most popular places in the world to commit suicide. The number of people taking their own lives in this forest is second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. At its peak, over 100 people a year were visiting Aokigahara to end their lives. Nearly half of those who kill themselves in the forest are from outside the region, suggesting they chose the location specifically for this final and tragic act.
The high number of suicide cases in Aokigahara reflects the alarming situation in the rest of the country. According to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in Japan is 25.8 per 100,000 people, which makes it the highest among all developed nations.
Ancient Traditions Endure
Although exact figures for annual suicides in Aokigahara have not been reported since 2004 – it is believed that reports of numbers may encourage more people to go there for the same reason – it is known that dozens of corpses of suicide victims are retrieved by volunteers who patrol the forest each year. The bodies are removed from the forest and taken 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 was thought that the spirits of these victims would become restless and scream throughout the night.
Japanese spiritualists believe that Aokigahara forest is haunted and that spirits of the dead enter the trees causing paranormal activity. The spirits are believed to be hostile, preventing people from leaving the forest.
The jacket of a suicide victim hangs on a branch in Aokigahara forest. Credit: Richard Atrero de Guzaman
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 to reduce the number of mouths to feed.
These dark tales were eventually picked up by popular media. 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. By the 1970s, Aokigahara had become increasingly depicted in popular novels, movies and television dramas as the setting for suicides and many people believe that the forest became a popular place for people wishing to end their lives as a result of this attention. This is not entirely true, however, as it was common for people to commit suicide in Aokigahara long before the first novel was published.
Today, the biggest problem is not movies and books, but social media. Last year, famous YouTube video blogger Logan Paul brought the forest into the international spotlight when he visited Aokigahara and posted a video showing the body of a victim who had hanged himself several hours earlier. While the victim’s face was blurred out, the corpse was on full display.
Paul’s video sparked worldwide outrage with people condemning him for exploiting a person’s death for views on his channel, but the damage was already done – his video attracted 6 million views before it was deleted. Now there have been cases of tourists visiting the forest and asking locals where they might see dead people. It was a poor decision that cost Paul his career.
Tackling the Suicide Pandemic
In a bid to discourage people from committing suicide, signboards have been set up near the entrance to the forest reading “Your life is a precious gift from your parents.” and “Please consult the police before you decide to die!”.
Volunteer anti-suicide patrols also scour the forest day and night in the hope of finding someone before it is too late.
A religious figure bound to a tree in Aokigahara, where someone ended their live. Credit: Rob Gilhooly
Vigilant shopkeepers and local residents do what they can to help those entering the forest with the intention of taking their own lives. One such individual is 60-year-old Kyochi Watanabe, a musician who sees himself as a “gatekeeper and protector” of the forest. He has spent the last eight years using his music to try to lift people out of a state of anguish and despair. From his hut on the edge of the forest, he blasts out John Lennon’s Imagine and other songs that may prompt suicidal people to change their mind. Sometimes he also approaches them and talks to them, trying to persuade them to reconsider.
It is through efforts like these that the dark history of Aokigahara may one day be reversed, returning to a time when the forest was appreciated for its beauty and worshiped as sacred.
A sign pleads with visitors not to consider suicide as they enter the forest. ( Aokigahara Forest )
Top image: A collection of shoes, presumably from those who have taken their lives, inside Aokigahara forest. Credit: Rob Gilhooly
By Joanna Gillan
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