This blog post contains sensitive and potentially upsetting content about mental health and suicide. If this topic is difficult, please proceed with caution or simply stop reading.
Aokigahara is a forest on the north-western region of Japan’s Mount Fuji, blossoming on 30 square kilometres of solidified lava from the last major eruption of Mount Fuji in 864 CE. The infamous forest is very dense, and the porous lava absorbs noise, thus offering visitors with a feeling of isolation. Tourists are always fascinated by the dense trees, tangled roots, and tough grounds of Mount Fuji, the thrill-seeking visitors are expecting to view the macabre side of the forest and finally, the poor souls who make the one-way journey to the forest to never to return. It has earned a negative recognition by being known as the ‘suicide forest’, because of the suicides that take place in the forest on a yearly basis. The forest was featured in a Vice documentary as well as two badly regarded Hollywood films: 2015’s The Sea of Trees, and 2016’s The Forest.
As early as the 1950s, visitors reported confronting bodies of suicide victims in Aokigahara. Undeniably, the generally common methods of suicide in the forest are hanging and drug overdose. In 1960, Seicho Matsumoto published his famous novel Tower of Waves (Kuroi Jukai) a.k.a. The Black Sea of Trees, in which the charming heroine, who is entangled in a publicly unfavourable relationship, heading into the Aokigahara forest to end her life. This romantic description showed a pivotal and disturbing influence on Japanese culture. Also, entwined into this folklore: The Complete Suicide Manual (Kanzen Jisatsu Manyuaru) wrote by Wataru Tsurumui’s, which illustrates numerous methods of suicide and even suggests Aokigahara as the picture-perfect location to perish. The novel was found among the forsaken properties of countless Suicide Forest visitors. A local patrol officer said, “I have seen plenty of bodies that have been really badly decomposed, or been picked at by wild animals. There is nothing beautiful about dying in there.”
In the 1800s, it was a prevalent destination for exercising Ubasute (senicide), which is a vicious and uncommon practice of euthanasia. It was seen as a last resort in dire times of famine, where a family would abandon an elderly relative on an isolated or rough location to die of dehydration, hunger, or exposure, in order to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Nevertheless, few claimed that this was a fictional tradition. In the Japanese belief, if a person dies in deep-seated hate, anger, sorrow, or yearning for retribution, their soul lingers in the world. These souls are called yurei, they seek for nothing in particular. Yurei tends to cut the tapes that are used as a pathfinder to make them lose their path inside the eerie forest. According to local reports, forest workers carry the bodies from the forest to the local police station, where they are placed in a designated room to retain suicide corpses and if the body is left on its own, its yurei wanders, screaming in the room. Japanese spiritualists believe that these suicides have penetrated Aokigahara’s trees, which in response has contributed to the onset of the paranormal activities.
In many countries, suicide is unlawful or mainly intolerable on religious or other righteous reasons, but in Japan, there is no such disgrace, however, it is even glorified because of such terms for suicide is ‘jiketsu‘ (to decide for yourself). In the medieval era in Japan, samurai warriors would rather commit suicide, seppuku (ritual disembowelling) to defend their honour and dignity than to be vanquished by their enemy. Even during World War II, Kamikaze, the Special Attack Group sacrificed themselves for their country was regarded as dutiful and admired. Nowadays, seppuku culture is practised, not for honourable reasons, but to take responsibility for not fitting into society.
Mental health awareness has also been an issue either suffers are overlooked or ostracised all together and seen as being a burden and costing the community. Males are more likely to commit suicide in Japan because of divorce or unemployment. There is a constant stigma around obtaining mental health care, especially for men. Youth suicides have increased from past years due to failure to achieve high expectations and academically pressures put on them by their families. In 2016, Japan has noticed declining rates, 21,897 people committed suicide, the lowest possible level in more than two decades. Over the few years, the local authorities have taken numerous actions to prevent suicides in Aokigahara by raising the height of bridge rails, preventing movies and TV shows that promote the forest’s negative reputation, installing security cameras, increased patrols by police and teams of volunteers to rescue people or recover the bodies of those whom they could not save. However, many believe that local police are unwilling to release or downplaying the number of suicides in order to encourage more tourism.
Messages such as “Please consult the police before you decide to die” and “Your life is a precious gift from your parents” are displayed all through the forest to discourage individuals who may be indecisive. At the end of the signs, there is a helpline telephone number, trusting that the lost souls would call for help.
As you can see in the below pictures, there are moss-covered clothing and shoes, personal belongings scattered throughout the forest floor.
Hideo Watanabe runs a shop at the entrance of the forest, he said a young woman tried to kill herself but failed so “made her some tea and called an ambulance. A few kind words can go a long way.” Showzen Yamashita, a priest who highlighted the lack of support systems in Japan and highly increasing suicide. He regularly performs Buddhist rites in the forest to pray for the afterlife and tranquillity of the ones who died there over the years, he said, “They have no one to talk to, no one to share the pain, the suffering.”
A scandalous video by an American YouTuber showed a body hanging from a tree in Aokigahara forest. The body will remain a faceless agent of an epidemic that countless only ever partly care about. The video ignited wide criticism for its racialized exploitation and tone-deaf demonstration of suicide and mental health by monetizing it through YouTube in a country where suicide rates are higher than in the most developed world. Depression, serious illness, social shame, financial stress, isolation, and unemployment are among the common reasons for suicides. The western perception often belittles or erases the mental illness among people of colour, depriving the sufferer of a voice, or being seen as unwanted and grotesque.
The Aokigahara Forest helps us to discover there is still an exceptional number of neglected issues with mental health and suicide awareness problems in the world and not just Japan. All of us need to be kind and open-hearted to those who are suffering.
Please, if you are battling with thoughts of suicide, there are worldwide resources accessible, 24/7 to anyone in distress.
Thank you for reading, fellow humans.