Warning: This article deals with the topic of suicide and may be triggering for some people.
Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest’ recently appeared in headlines after YouTube personality Logan Paul made a video in which he showed a dead body hanging among the trees in what is, tragically, a popular location for people to end their lives.
Mass outrage over the video led to the personality, who has many young fans, being dropped from lucrative Google Preferred program by YouTube.
While the insensitive video showed the forest in an exploitative light, it’s eerie beauty, and it’s harrowing history, have long been the subject of fascination for documentary filmmakers, journalists and the merely curious.
At first glance, Japan’s Mt Fuji is simply picturesque – postcard perfect, cherry blossoms against a blue sky.
But at the foot of its snow-capped grandeur, there’s something much more sinister going on.
A forest called Aokigahara lies at the northwest base of the mountain. This 35sq km forest of dense trees and bush has been nicknamed ‘Jukai’ (Sea of Trees) or, more commonly, ‘Suicide Forest’.
About 100 people commit suicide in the forest every year, making it the second most common place in the world for suicides (the most common is San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge). It has become such a popular destination for the macabre act the Japanese government has put a sign at the starts of its main walking trail, urging visitors ‘Please think about your parents, siblings and children’ before they continue.
Inside the forest, sounds are muted, and there have been multiple reports that compasses no longer work. Supposedly because of magnetic anomalies in the area’s iron-rich volcanic soil. This makes it easy for hikers to get lost if they stray from the main walkway. (This claim has been disputed by Christopher Hood, who wrote that his compass and GPS systems ‘worked fine’ in his book, Japan: The Basics).
But there’s no doubt it’s a place that leaves visitors feeling uncomfortable:
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The forest will undoubtedly gain more notoriety after the screening of Sea of Trees at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Originally considered a runner for the coveted Palm D’Or, the film stars Matthew McConaughey as an American mathematician who travels to Japan to kill himself in the forest (Naomi Watts stars as his wife).
Aokigahara, once a popular camping destination, is now shrouded with uneasiness. It remains a popular tourist destination thanks to two spots: The Ice Cave and the Wind Cave. But locals believe it is haunted because of its association with myths that say the area was once a place for the tragic Japanese custom ubasute, where people would take their elders deep into the forest and leave them alone to die.
Children are told to stay away from the forest and never to wander in.
This is not a recent phenomenon, Japanese people have been making one-way trips to the forest for more than half a century. Although the suicides pre-date the 19th century, the site’s ‘popularity’ can be attributed to the 1960 novel, Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees) by Seichō Matsumoto, which ends with two lovers committing suicide in the 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,” writes Rob Gilhooly, a journalist who entered the forest for The Japan Times.
“Further on there’s an envelope of photos, one showing a young man, another two small children dressed in colourful kimonos and elementary school uniform. Together with the photos there’s a typed note “To Hide” (most likely the name of a man), 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?””
Louise Hung visited the forest, and wrote for XOJane, “As we hiked further in, our chatter turning to concentrating on not slipping on the icy trail, I suddenly became aware of how quiet the forest was. There was no breeze, no sound of woodland creatures. Aside from the occasional crow cawing in the distance, and the muffled sound of snow falling from tree branches, Aokigahara was nearly silent.” Eerie indeed.
“Due to the density of the tree growth preventing much wind from penetrating the forest, and the lack of almost all wildlife, Aokigahara is notoriously devoid of sound,” Hung continued.
Local police and firemen do a monthly sweep of the area for bodies, and rarely return empty-handed. Coloured string or ribbons wrap around the trees to indicate both the areas they’ve covered, and to show forest visitors the way back if they go off-track.
The forest also highlight’s a national issue for Japan, which has, according to the World Health Organisation, the highest suicide rate of any developed country in the world.
“Callers most frequently cite mental health and family problems as the reason for contemplating suicide,” Yukio Saito, executive director of Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline), a volunteer telephone counseling service in Japan said. “But behind that are other issues, such as financial problems or losing their job.”
According to the Aokigahara Forest official website, most bodies found are males between 40 and 50. Most bodies are found in March, possibly because this is the end of the fiscal year in Japan.
Authorities are doing what they can to prevent further deaths in the forest by mounting signs and security camera’s at the entrances. Locals are doing their part too. Hideo Watanabe‘s cafe faces an entrance to the forest so if he sees someone go in alone, he will run after them to talk to them.
“If I see someone on their own, I will go and talk to them,” Wantanabe told The Japan Times. “After a few basic questions, it’s usually not so difficult to tell which ones might be here on a suicide mission. A few kind words can go a long way.”
What drives these souls to the forest? Is it the popularity of the place? The serene nature, maybe just the complete silence. This, we will never know…
If you or anyone you know needs help please call Lifeline 13 11 14.
You can watch the short documentary from VICE below in which a Geologist enters the forest and talks about the history. Some images may be distressing for some viewers.
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