January 2, 2018 at 12:24 PM
Inside Mount Fuji’s Aokigahara Jukai forest, there are signs urging distraught visitors to value their lives.
In the 2015 drama “The Sea of Trees,” Matthew McConaughey’s character stumbles upon one written in both English and Japanese. “The life you were given from your parents is precious,” it reads. “Once more, meditate on your parents, your siblings, your children. Think about them, do not suffer alone.”
Then, several steps later, another states: “Hold on a second. Is your life a happy one? Or a difficult one?
“The world is not only full of difficult things. There are many things that are fun. Please think again, so that you can make your life a happy one. You will be able to think of something. You only have one life, take care of it.”
As depicted in movies and in written accounts, the sprawling woodland, less than 100 miles from Tokyo, is blanketed with trees that cast shadows over the occasional reminder that someone died there — a pair of shoes, a briefcase, a photograph of a loved one or, perhaps, a decaying body.
Over the years, it has become known colloquially as “suicide forest,” a place where some have gone to die.
YouTube celebrity Logan Paul incited outrage over the weekend after he posted a video showing the body of an apparent suicide victim in the Aokigahara forest.
As The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser reported, he later apologized for the video, saying he “intended to raise awareness for suicide and suicide prevention.”
In 2015, the suicide rate in Japan was 15.4 per 100,000 people, according to data from the World Health Organization. Although the Guardian reported that the number dropped in 2016, Japan’s suicide rate still remains among the highest in the world.
And although authorities have stopped releasing numbers, police records showed that 247 people attempted suicide in 2010 in the Aokigahara forest — and 54 of them died, according to the Japan Times.
So what is the Aokigahara forest and how did it earn such a tragic reputation?
Aokigahara Jukai, or the sea of trees, is located in Yamanashi, Japan, on a floor formed from lava that once flowed down Mount Fuji, according to the Japanese National Tourism Organization.
The lush green landscape is known for towering trees hundreds of years old. The Japanese tourism agency warns visitors to stay on the designated trails, writing on its website, “If you step out of the trail, you will only see trees around you, making it very easy to get lost.” In fact, there are ropes sectioning off certain areas in the forest and warning people about how they may get turned around.
But the forest is known for something else, too — it is where some die by suicide.
“In the old days in Japan, suicide was mainly known as a samurai’s act,” geologist Azusa Hayano told Vice, which translated his words in a 2012 documentary. “In other cases, poor families would abandon their elders in the mountains. That’s how it was back then. They weren’t killing themselves because they couldn’t adapt to society. That didn’t happen like it does now. It’s a modern phenomenon.”
National Geographic reported in February that the notion stems from folklore:
Local legend has it that Aokigahara was a place where people once practiced ubasute — taking an elderly or sick relative to a remote area and leaving them to die. Tower of Waves, a 1960s novel by Seichō Matsumoto, features a beautiful, love-torn heroine who commits suicide there. The Complete Manual of Suicide, by Wataru Tsurumi, named the forest as a perfect place to die.
It has also appeared in pop culture.
The forest has been featured in several films, including the 2012 Vice documentary as well as the 2016 horror movie “The Forest,” starring Natalie Dormer. Dormer told the entertainment news site Den of Geek that she had never heard of the forest before she read the script but that she became “fascinated by the whole heritage of the place.”
I didn’t see anything unusual, but I stood in front of the signs. They’re there. And the tape that people tie around trees, or rope, to walk in is there. It’s really there. It’s very interesting: the day I went, it was a beautiful sunny day, the birds were singing, it was a blue sky, we saw lots of hikers. People with kids walking along, very happy, a lovely hiking trail. Beautiful. But at the same time, every sort of half-a-mile or whatever, there will be a sign like that as you say.
So, I think you just feel a compassion and a sadness that there are still people who go to that place with the intention of going in and not coming out.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, risk factors associated with suicide may include mental disorders such as clinical depression, previous suicide attempts, a barrier to accessing mental health treatment, physical illness and feelings of hopelessness or isolation. Those who need help can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.