This summer, my wife and I spent a little time driving around the Fuji Five Lakes. As we travelled between three of them – Lakes Sai, Shoji and Motosu – we were in fact passing through Aokigahara, Japan’s suicide forest. Aokigahara forest grew over the lava that spilled into the huge Lake Senoumi in 864 AD, following the Jogan eruption of Mount Fuji. The lava divided Senoumi into the three smaller lakes that we know today, and indeed they are still connected by underground waterways. Over time the foliage on the lava grew thick and dense and it earned the nickname jukai, ‘The Sea of Trees’. From above, that is what it looks like. From Mount Fuji, clouds permitting, you look down upon 30 square kilometres or so of unbroken green. A carpet of green, a sea of green, all year round, shading the mysterious forest beneath.
It is an eerie place. The forest floor is mostly volcanic rock and the thick gnarled roots of trees seem to be grasping the rocks to secure their hold. They are the roots of Halloween trees. They twist and intertwine over the mossy stones, while fallen trees lean in every direction adding to a general air of entanglement. It is dark in the forest, the trees are thick and dense and the canopy blocks off almost all sunlight. It is quiet, too. There is comparatively little wildlife, and once you get a few kilometres inside, virtually all sounds of the outside world disappear. The forest and the lava rocks seem to soak up all sound. Between the roots and rocks are holes and caves. Scary, dark entrances and exits to and from the underground.
With no sense of sky or sound, it would be easy to get lost in the Sea of Trees. There are trails in the forest, but they only go so far. Elsewhere, there are signs and rope barriers warning hikers to go no further as it could be difficult to find a way out. Rumours persist about the iron deposits in the lava rocks playing havoc with compasses, rendering them useless. The Japan Self-Defense Force, however, appears to have no problems when running training drills in the forest. Some say that top-of-the-range equipment works but cheaper navigational items fail. Others refute that as nonsense and argue that the magnetic field generated by the iron deposits would be too weak to have any meaningful effect. When researching a documentary, The Perfect Place, about Aokigahara, two Swedish filmmakers tested out their compasses within the forest. They appeared to work without problem. Still, though, it really isn’t a place you want to get lost. It feels creepy enough taking a few steps in from the edges. Further in it can get grisly.
People who venture off the trails and go deep into the forest alone do so for one main reason: to die. In 2004, a record number of 108 people are known to have killed themselves here. In 2010, 247 people attempted to do so. Fifty-four of them succeeded. It is thought to be the world’s second most popular suicide destination with only San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge seeing more victims. Many point to the novel Nami No To (Tower of Waves) written by Seicho Matsumoto in 1961 as the starting point for the trend – if destinations for killing yourself can ever be counted as a trend – of ending it all in the Sea of Trees. In that novel the story ends with a beautiful woman who finds herself in a socially unacceptable love affair going into the forest to end her life. Since then, far too many have followed her lead.
There is another book, though, which has played an important role in cementing Aokigahara’s reputation as a top suicide spot. That book is The Complete Manual of Suicide, published by Tsurumi Wataru in 1993. The book became a bestseller. In it the author describes Aokigahara as, ‘the perfect place to die’ adding that, ‘Your body will not be found.’
Locals say they can tell when somebody is going into the forest to die. They know the difference, they say, between a genuine hiker, a morbid sightseer and a person with no intention of coming back out. In an excellent article in The Japan Times by Rob Gilhooly in June 2011, one shopkeeper said he had saved 160 people in 30 years. He said that most pleasure seekers came in groups, so if he saw somebody alone he would try to have a chat. ‘After a few basic questions,’ he said, ‘it’s usually not so difficult to tell which ones might be here on a suicide mission.’
But, of course, many escape the vigilant locals. The Complete Suicide Manual even offers advice on evading the police and local residents. Sadly, people continue to ignore the signs urging them to think of their families, their parents and their children. They are not ready to take the advice on the signs that they should discuss their problems. They don’t phone the numbers of the helplines given. They carry on into the forest and they end their lives. Abandoned cars near the forest are often a sign that somebody has gone in and never returned. Sometimes their bodies are not found, but, contrary to The Complete Suicide Manual’spromise, sometimes they are.
In the 1970s, regular body searches began in the forest, and now monthly patrols by police try to discover bodies. Thrill seekers, too, occasionally go in search of the macabre, and should not be altogether surprised when they discover it.
There are signs of once lived lives scattered throughout the dense undergrowth. A pair of shoes here, some old clothing there, a dropped vanity mirror, empty beer cans and bottles of sake. But you could see them in any forest, probably. Then there are the more sinister indicators. Abandoned copies of The Complete Suicide Manual left open at the pages showing a map of the forest area, occasional suicide notes nailed to trees, empty packets of sleeping pills and ropes, not on the ground, but hanging ominously from trees. Sometimes, they come with a body still attached. Sometimes just bones. Hanging is the most common way to end it all in the forest. Ingesting too many sleeping pills, the next.
In a documentary produced by Santiago Stelley for the website www.vice.com, Azusa Hayano, who has lived in the area for over 30 years, allows us to look deeper into the forest and see some of the sad discoveries those on patrol might find. Hayano is a geologist who works in environmental protection, studying volcanic eruptions and the plant life at the foot of Mount Fuji. He also goes on ‘suicide patrols’ through the forest and estimates that he has found over 100 bodies in 20 years. He has found people alive in the forest, too, and convinced them to change their mind. In the documentary, he discovers a man camping alone in the forest and engages him in conversation. The man is hesitant to talk at first but gradually speaks more. He claims just to be camping, but Hayano has his doubts. Few come to camp alone in Aokigahara without an ulterior motive. He was right. The man had been in the forest for a month surviving on nothing but liquids. At the end of the documentary we are told he was removed from the forest that day and taken away in an ambulance.
Hayano shows us ropes and nooses dangling from high branches. He shows us discarded clothing and bones. We see a pair of training shoes which are still being worn, but which now sit on the feet of a human who has long since lost all flesh. It’s hard to watch. If you were to explore the forest you might well find skeletons, or you might find more recent victims. They may still be hanging from a noose. They may be decomposing. They may have been gnawed at by animals.
There are sometimes lengths of tape running between the trees in the forest. These may be left by hikers wanting to leave a trail by which to find their way out, or they may be put in place by the police and other patrollers to mark areas that have been searched, but Hayano says they are also sometimes left by the hesitant. Those that are fully committed to ending their life, he says, enter the forest and kill themselves quite quickly. Those that bring tents are less sure, and so are those who mark their way by tape. They are leaving a trail out. They are keeping their options open. One thing is likely, thinks Hayano, and that is that if you follow the tape you will probably find something. It may be a body, or it may be personal effects or other evidence that somebody was there, but there will usually be something.
Local authorities do what they can to prevent suicides. They put up signs urging those in need to seek help, they comb the forest, they have security cameras at the main entrances to the forest. Gilhooly reports that an average of around 100 people are brought out of the forest ‘in various states of consciousness.’ Others are either not found in time or never found at all. As Hayano walks through the forest, he discovers a tree at whose base has been placed some bouquets of flowers, some chocolates and a comic book, marks of respect by a victim’s bereaved friends or family. Hayano looks at the gifts and says simply, ‘You think you die alone but that’s not true. Nobody is alone in this world.’
This feeling of isolation, of having nobody to talk to is something that Hayano seems to feel deeply about. He is a softly spoken man and when he talks, the importance he attaches to human relationships is clear. He talks of the need to communicate face to face, to see each other’s facial expressions, to hear each other’s voices, all things that he thinks are becoming less common in this online world. But most importantly, he says, ‘We have to co-exist and take care of each other.’
Japan has the highest suicide rate amongst developed countries. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, on its Statistics Bureau website states that the number of suicides in Japan was 29,524 in 2010. This was the first time since 1998 it had dropped under the 30,000 figure. By comparison, the UK recorded 5608 suicides of people over 15 years old in 2010. Japan has twice the population of the UK and over five times the number of suicides.
There are of course myriad factors, societal and cultural, as to why this should be and many point to the fact that traditionally suicide has been more accepted, indeed even respected in Japan. But Hayano suggests there is a difference between suicides in the olden days and those that occur so frequently now. In days gone by, samurai might commit seppuku, ritual suicide, by self-disembowelment, rather than be captured and killed by an enemy. Horrific as it sounds, it was seen as a more honorable way to die. Others committed the act to atone for shame or disgrace. While walking through the forest, Hayano admits that suicide has always been comparatively common in Japan but adds that back then, in the days of samurai, people weren’t killing themselves because they couldn’t fit into society. It wasn’t like it is now. Those that wander into the forest these days have lost hope, have lost their place in the world and can see no better future. Perhaps they, too, see this as a more honorable exit. Perhaps those with debt problems or depression, those without work or those who feel they have no worth in this world see themselves as burdens on their families, on their friends, on society. Perhaps some of them see this as the honorable thing to do. But Hayano reminds us that those whose bodies lie in the forest face a slow disintegration. The corpses rot, parasites hatch, the flesh gradually disappears from the bones. The bodies stink and sometimes form parts of wild animals’ meals. It’s hard to find glory in that. As the geologist says, ‘I think it’s impossible to die heroically by committing suicide.’
It’s not just the suicides that give Aokigahara its spooky reputation. Long before Matsumoto’s novel, it was known as being a scary place, a place with ghouls and demons and angry spirits, yurei as they are known in Japanese. In fact, Hayano mentions that locals are less likely to commit suicide in the forest because they are taught from a young age not to go there. There is no doubt that the weird physical nature of the forest has added to the fear factor, and the fact that skeletons and dead bodies scatter the land has certainly cemented the jukai’s position as a place you really don’t want to find yourself alone at night, but yurei have been believed to haunt the area for centuries.
Yurei are spirits thought to wander the earth when a person dies without receiving burial rites, or if the death comes to the person in a violent or sudden manner, including suicide. Aokigahara is thus believed to be very haunted indeed. But not all of the lost souls took their own life. Legend has it that it was also a place popular for the practice of ubasute. Long ago, in times of hardship in Japan, families would sometimes decide they could no longer care for an elderly or sick relative, most commonly a woman of the family, and they would take them out to some remote place, a mountain, or Aokigahara for example, and leave them there to die. A mountain in Nagano prefecture where the practice was thought to be common is known locally as Ubasuteyama.
There is an old folk tale relating to the custom. In it, a son lives in a town with his elderly mother. The town has a rule of sorts, a convention that once the oldies get past their prime they should be taken into the mountains and abandoned. Thrown out, if you will. The son isn’t keen but his mother insists. She’s only sixty, but the neighbours have already been left in the mountains and now, she says, the time has come for her to be taken there and left to die. The son carries his mother on his back deep into the mountains, to a place where it would be easy to get lost. Darkness begins to fall and his mother urges him to leave her now and hurry home. Well, he feels great guilt but leaves her as she requests and begins to head home. Sure enough, though, he loses his way. Then he steps on twigs, and realizes that if he were to follow this trail of twigs he would find his way home. His mother, so selfless even when facing death, had dropped twigs along the path all the way up into the mountains to be sure her son would get back home safely. He had abandoned her, but she made sure he was safe till the end.
It’s a nicer idea than telling Grandma that we’re all just going into the forest to look at some flowers and then, as soon as her back is turned, shouting, ‘Now!’ and tearing off at full speed.
With tales of abandoned old women, corpses, skeletons and ghosts, Aokigahara isn’t the world’s most easily marketable camping destination. I felt brave to walk a few metres in. To be a member of a suicide patrol, or to walk in the woods alone as Azusa Hayano often does takes more courage than I could ever hope to have. Everybody knows you can’t unsee things. But these people go into the woods, they discover bodies and they arrange to have them brought out. The next task, it would seem, is to inform the people with what is almost certainly the world’s worst job.
You see, when bodies are found in the forest, they are brought at first to a local forestry station which has a special room in which to store them. The problem, however, is that there is a belief that yurei really don’t like to be left alone and that they will scream and howl all night if they are. This belief is taken seriously enough by forestry workers that in that room for the dead there is an extra bed. That is the bed for the lucky employee who gets chosen to keep the corpse company for the night. That’s a hell of a nightshift!
And I thought I had a horrific time of it when I had to share a small summer tent with a fat friend.