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Sunday, June 26, 2011
Inside Japan's 'Suicide Forest'
By ROB GILHOOLY
Special to The Japan Times
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 mid-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 half a century, thousands of life-weary Japanese have made one-way trips to this sprawling, 30-sq.-km tract of woodland in Yamanashi Prefecture on the northwest flank of 3,776-meter Mount Fuji, 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.
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" (most likey 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?"
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, so 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 items or 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 — 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, either from the exhaust or charcoal-burners they bring with them.
"What is certain, though, is that the numbers continue to rise each year," Watanabe added.
This is also the case nationwide. In January, a National Police Agency (NPA) report indicated that 31,690 people committed suicide in 2010, the 13th consecutive year in which the figures topped 30,000. In fact, according to World Health Organization data, the suicide rate in Japan is 25.8 per 100,000 people — the highest among developed nations, and more than double that of the United States.
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 in 2009.
It is also believed that next year will see a further rise in suicides due to the magnitude-9 megaquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan on March 11. "It is likely to have a huge influence," said Yoshinori Cho, director of the psychiatry department at Teikyo University in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, and author of a book titled "Hito wa naze Jisatsu Suru no ka" ("Why do People Commit Suicide?")
Already there have been several suicides by relatives of disaster victims, while the long-term effects of life in evacuation shelters may also lead to depression and thus, directly or indirectly, to further suicides, Cho added.
"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."