Japan's Aokigahara Forest Struggles to Shed Historic Suicide Infamy
In the shadow of Japan’s Mount Fuji, lies the sprawling Aokigahara Forest, also known as Jukai, or the Sea of Trees, because its rustling branches reportedly resemble the sound of the sea. The ethereal tangle of cypress and pine trees has sprouted up on lava rocks formed by a volcanic eruption more than a thousand years ago. Just two hours from Tokyo, Aokigahara has become a magnet for more than just hikers and has come to be known as Suicide Forest.
Symbolic of the mental health crisis plaguing Japan, visitors to Aokigahara Forest are welcomed by signs dissuading people from taking their own life. “Quietly think once more about your parents, siblings or children,” reads one billboard. “Your life is a precious gift from your parents.”
Elevated suicide rates in Japan have been in the headlines for decades, particularly for men between 20 and 44, and battling unhappiness has become a top priority. In 2021, Japan even appointed its first Minister of Loneliness to tackle the very real issues of social isolation and self-killing. This is however an uphill battle due to the potent blend of the traditional Japanese mindset, societal expectations and modern-day job insecurity.
"We don't want the forest to be known as a suicide spot. It's dishonorable." https://t.co/pG2MnjjQkq
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 5, 2018
Historically, the cultural interpretation of suicide in Japan is far different from its understanding as a sin in Judeo-Christianity. Suicide in Japan has conventionally been associated with romanticized ideals of honor. Seppuku, for example, whereby samurai warriors would commit suicide to prevent dishonor befalling their family after defeat or shame, was deemed an honorable death .
Positive sanctioning of these acts has infected the Japanese mindset, morphing into what is known as inseki-jisatsu, or “responsibility-driven” suicide. In a culture where conversations about depression or financial insecurity are taboo, marginalized groups – such as the elderly or unemployed – often turn to suicide to avoid being a burden, or to ensure insurance payouts for their family.
Local authorities are calling for the media to desensationalize Aokigahara Forest. ( akira1201 / Adobe Stock)
In 1993, Wataru Tsurumi dubbed Aokigahara Forest “the perfect place to die” in The Complete Manual of Suicide . Today Aokigahara is littered with discarded tents, mementos and tape, tied around trunks to prevent hikers getting lost amidst labyrinthine trees. From the 1960s novel Tower of Waves , to the 2015 Gus Van Sant film Sea of Trees , the situation has only been compounded by Aokigahara’s frequent appearance in popular culture.
Local authorities are worried about all the publicity, calling for the media to desensationalize Aokigahara , but its reputation has only mushroomed thanks to social media – and with it the number of suicides.
The internet is awash with urban myths , from cellphones and compasses malfunctioning within the forest, to tales of restless spirits and other paranormal activity. In response, security cameras and anti-suicide patrols have been implemented in the hope of saving lives.
If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, there are professionals and hotlines available to help. Warning signs include clinical depression, previous suicide attempts, barriers to mental health treatment, illness or feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Don't suffer in silence; there are people who care about you and want to offer their support.
Top image: Aokigahara Forest, a.k.a. Suicide Forest, in Japan. Source: Satoshi881 / Adobe Stock