By Rob Gilhooly
I am walking through Aokigahara Jukai forest, the light rapidly fading on a mid-winter afternoon, when I am stopped dead in my tracks by a blood-curdling scream. The natural reaction would be to run, but the forest floor is a maze of roots and slippery rocks and, truth be told, I am lost in this vast woodland whose name, in part, translates as “Sea of Trees.”
Inexplicably, I find myself moving toward the sound, searching for signs of life.
Instead, I find death.
The source of that scream remains a mystery as, across a clearing, I see what looks like a pile of clothes. But as I approach, it becomes apparent it’s more than just clothes I’ve spotted.
In a small hollow, just below a tree, and curled up like a baby on a thick bed of dead leaves, lies a man, his thinning gray hair matted across his balding cranium. His pasty upper torso is shirtless, while his legs are covered only by black long johns — with blue-striped boxers sticking out above the waistband — and a pair of woolly socks.
Under his bent legs a pair of slacks, a white shirt and a jacket have been spread out as a cushion at his final resting place. Scattered around are innumerable documents, a briefcase and other remnants of a former life. Nearer to him are items more closely related to his demise: empty packets of prescription pills, beer cans and bottles of liquor.
Seemingly this man, who looks to be in his 50s, had drawn his last breath before I heard that unsourced, chilling cry.
That I came across a body in this forest was a shock, but not a surprise. For over half a century, thousands of life-weary Japanese have made one-way trips to this sprawling, 30-sq.-km tract of woodland on the northwest flank of Mount Fuji, at 3,776-meters the nation’s highest peak. It’s a dark place of stark beauty, long associated with demons in Japanese mythology — and one that has earned itself the unfortunate appellation of “Suicide Forest.”
Evidence of such pilgrimages is strewn amid the dense undergrowth. Four pairs of moss-covered shoes are lined up on the gnarled roots of a tree — two adult-size pairs and two children’s pairs. Many who take their lives here, including the bare-chested man I had discovered, first remove their shoes before making their last bed – a macabre take on an age-long custom that prevents the dirtiness of the outside world from spoiling the cleanliness inside the home.
Further on there’s an envelope of photos, one showing a young man, another two small children dressed in colorful kimonos and elementary school uniform. Together with the photos there’s a typed note “To Hide” including the final stanza of “Song of the Open Road,” Walt Whitman’s poem from 1900 that ends with the line: “Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”
Nobody can know exactly how that line was answered — there was no sign of life, no sign of human remains. Local police suggest wild animals often get to corpses before they do, thus clouding the issue of exactly how many achieve their goal and end it all here.
Nonetheless, bodies are frequently discovered in monthly sweeps coordinated by the police and local volunteer firemen. As they move around the forest, these searchers leave color-coded plastic tapes strung between trees to mark where they have searched and where they have found bodies — or sometimes simply to mark their way back out of this sylvan maze.
Altogether, police records show that 247 people made suicide attempts in the forest in 2010 (the last available figures, provided by local police almost grudgingly) — 54 of them successfully.
Local officials and residents believe that number could be significantly higher.
“There are people who come here to end their lives in Aokigahara Jukai but, uncertain as to where exactly the forest is, kill themselves in neighboring woodland,” said Masamichi Watanabe, chief of the Fujigoko Fire Department that covers this area. Even so, his officers still recover an annual average of 100 people from the forest in various states of consciousness — including an increasing number who tried to take their lives by inhaling toxic gas in their cars.
What is certain, Watanabe added, is that the numbers continue to rise each year.
Which is also the case nationwide. According to the government statistics in 2011 there were 30,651 cases recorded of people taking their own lives, the 14th consecutive year in which the figures topped 30,000. That total dipped below 30,000 people for the first time in 15 years in 2012 — to 27,766, though new terminology and methods of calculating suicides has been credited in part for that dip. More telling however is World Health Organization data, which reveals Japan’s suicide rate at 21.7 per 100,000 people in 2012 — the highest among developed nations, and more than double that of the United States, New Zealand and UK.
Some experts are quick to point out the impact of the global financial crisis, especially since the world’s third-largest economy suffered its most severe contraction in over 30 years. Others insist it is often less straight forward that simple economics, with ill health also sometimes playing a part.
Another contributory factor in the past few years was the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. The number of suicides related to the disasters was 73 as of Dec 31, 2012. Early on many of these were suicides by relatives of disaster victims, while the long-term effects of life in evacuation shelters can lead to depression and thus, directly or indirectly, to further suicides, said Yoshinori Cho, director of the psychiatry department at Teikyo University, and author of a book titled “Hito wa naze Jisatsu Suru no ka” (“Why do People Commit Suicide?”)
“It’s not just regular depression, but also clinical depression due to the stress caused by the reality of their circumstances,” he said. “Depression is a huge risk factor when it comes to suicide.”
According to national police reports, a major suicide motive is depression. More than half of suicide victims are out of work when they died. Among those, men in their 50s were most numerous, though men in their 30s and 40s has been the demographic showing the biggest percentage increase in the past few years.
“This generation has a lot of difficulty finding permanent jobs, and instead people take on temping work that is unstable and causes great anxiety,” said Yukio Saito, executive director of Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline), a volunteer telephone counseling service that last year fielded nearly 70,000 calls from people contemplating suicide.
“Callers most frequently cite mental health and family problems as the reason for contemplating suicide,” Saito said. “But behind that are other issues, such as financial problems or losing their job.”
Although financial worries are undoubtedly major drivers of modern-day suicide, other unique cultural and historical factors also seem to play a part.
In some countries, suicide is illegal or at least largely unacceptable on religious or other moral grounds, but in Japan there is no such stigma.
“Throughout Japanese history, suicide has never been prohibited on religious or moral grounds,” said Cho. “Also, apart from on two specific occasions in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), suicide has never been declared illegal.” Lifeline’s Saito concurred, saying: “Suicide is quite permissible in Japanese society, something honorable that is even glorified.”
The tradition of honorable suicide dates back centuries to Japan’s feudal era, when samurai warriors would commit seppuku (ritual disemboweling) as a way to uphold their honor rather than fall into the hands of an enemy.
The present-day acceptance of suicide stems from this, Cho said. “Vestiges of the seppuku culture can be seen today in the way suicide is viewed as a way of taking responsibility,” he observed.
Japan is also subject to suicide fads, and Seicho Matsumoto’s 1961 novel “Nami no To” (“Tower of Waves”) started a trend for love-vexed couples, and then jobless people, to commit suicide in the Aokigahara Jukai.
The book concludes with its beautiful heroine, who is involved in a socially unacceptable relationship, heading into the forest with her professor lover, seemingly to end their lives.
In fact the suicide trend in the forest peaked in 2004, when Yamanashi prefectural police figures show 108 people killed themselves there.
In recent years, local authorities have implemented measures to try and reduce that toll, including siting security cameras at the main entrances to the forest and carrying out round-the-clock patrols.
At the entrances there are also signs that read: “Think carefully about your children, your family.” Below them is the phone number of a volunteer group headed by lawyers specializing in debt advice, as debt is a common suicide trigger.
The signs were erected by 40-year-old Toyoki Yoshida, who himself attempted suicide due to debt. He blames Japan’s money-lending system, which the government has now reformed to a degree.
“As things stood,” Yoshida said, “major banks would provide loans to loan sharks at 2 percent interest, and then the sharks would loan to people like me at 29.2 percent. But despite the reform, it’s still not hard to amass crippling debts in this country.”
One stunningly short-sighted proposal by the local government to stem the flow at Aokigahara was to build a high wall around it. The costly project never found traction, and today vigilant shopkeepers play a vital role in the prevention effort. Hideo Watanabe, 64, whose lakeside cafe is one of just two stores that face an entrance to the forest, said that he has saved around 170 people over the past 30 years.
“Most people who come to this area for pleasure do so in groups,” he said. “So, if I see someone on their own, I will go and talk to them. After a few basic questions, it’s usually not so difficult to tell which ones might be here on a suicide mission.”
On one occasion, he said a young woman who had tried to kill herself walked past his store. “She had tried to hang herself and failed. She had part of the rope around her neck and her eyes were almost popping out of their sockets. I took her inside, made her some tea, and called an ambulance. A few kind words can go a long way.”
Gruesome as they are, such inglorious images were at the heart of my reason d’etre for starting a photo project about the forest. Like the Great War poets who ridiculed the notion of dying for one’s country as being sweet and honorable, I could find nothing in Aokigahara Jukai – no shoes, boots, watches or other remnants of lives now discarded like newspaper wrappers in a chip shop bin – that spoke of a dignified life or death.
Hiroyuki Deyama assured me that this was far from his mind when in 2007 he tried on two separate occasions to end his life in the forest. At 46, a heart problem put an end to his job at a steel works factory near Tokyo. And with that, he lost sight of the future. Unable to find employment, he took to scrounging and begging to eke out an existence. His friends deserted him. So he went to the forest in the middle of winter armed with booze, prescription pills and bags of ice. After consuming the former two, he removed his clothes and lay down beneath the trees with the bags of ice balanced over his heart. When two elderly walkers found him the next day his body was blue – but despite his weakened heart and troubled mind, Deyama’s solid frame had refused to give in. “Nobody seemed to care, I felt like an outcast, a liability.”
Showzen Yamashita, a priest who conducts Buddhist rites in the forest to pray for the repose of the thousands of people who have died there over the years, says the lack of support networks in Japan is a main cause of the ever-increasing suicide rate.
“They have no one to talk to, no one to share the pain, the suffering,” he said. “So they think, ‘If I take my life I can escape this misery.’ I conduct these rites in order to ponder how we might help make a better world, world that is free of such suffering.”
Would this mean that the likes of Deyama are doomed? As we walk away from the very spot where he had tried to end his life, he catches my eye and sees something I didn’t realize I was showing. “It’s odd,” he says with the cheeriest, bravest chuckle I have ever heard. “My world is different now. I mean, well, I’d never spoken to a foreigner in my life before that happened.”