Jukai: The Forest of Suicides and The Sea of Trees
The first unforgettable thing about Aokigahara is the silence. The quiet is that of the desert. In some places, hidden within 3,000 hectares of conifers, not even a wisp of wind can get into them. Every breath, even the faintest, sounds like a roar. Under the fallen branches and the decaying leaves, the floor is made of volcanic rock, deposited by a massive eruption of Mount Fuji (in the year 864). The stone is hard and porous, full of small holes that dampen any noise. This is also the reason why roots cannot penetrate deeply and so curl up on the lava. The trees have grown so close to each other that the light is dim most of the time. Aokigahara is a forest that swallows things up. Sounds, lights, colours. Lives, even. Jukai (the “sea of trees”) is notorious both for the complete serenity of nature on the slopes of the sacred mountain, and also because it is widely known as “the forest of suicides”. No other place in the world, apart from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, boasts a higher number of people who select it as the location to end their life. The statistics vary from year to year, but on average, from 1950 onwards, 30 suicides have taken place each year.
That the forest has become the last resting place of many, therefore, is no longer a secret to anyone. On the contrary. The authorities have placed signs at the entrance to the main paths with advice to “reconsider” their choice and “think carefully” about the fate of their children and their family. The problem is that they are not always successful in their persuasion. Thus, in an attempt at least to avoid copycats, in recent years they have stopped publishing the official number of bodies recovered from the forest (the biggest shock occurred in 2004 when there was a peak of 108). These numbers will, in any case, never be confirmed as accurate. This is because, even though hanging is the most common cause of death and also the most “visible” to the small army of police officers and volunteers who have been scouring every corner of the forest to recover bodies since the 1970s, many others choose methods like drug overdose, which exposes them to the risk of getting lost forever among the foliage or becoming prey to some animal. In Aokigahara, no one, if they wanted, would surely find it hard to disappear into thin air.
The origin of the legend
But why do so many souls in pain choose Jukai as their preferred place to end their life? Despite its somewhat bleak side, it is paradise for fans of trekking and hiking and it is also chosen by teachers as a destination for school trips. It is within the Fuji Five Lakes region, a tourist attraction with few equals in the whole of Japan, known not only for views of Mount Fuji but also for its ice caves and stunning cherry blossoms in spring. Yet, it has slowly turned into an open-air cemetery, a perfect stage set for Halloween photoshoots (which in the Land of the Rising Sun is a craze second only to that of the Anglo-Saxon world) and for horror films. And even for moments of desecration, such as that of December 31, 2017, when the vlogger Logan Paul ventured into the forest with some friends and posted a video online depicting their reaction to the sight of a hanging corpse, resulting in an avalanche of criticism. In general, the exact reason to choose this forest to leave this world remains a mystery, even though several hypotheses circulate.
The most ancient legends refer to an historic practice widespread in the feudal era, the ubasute, the act of deliberately leaving an elderly person to die. In specific situations of economic hardship, it was not rare to find cases of families in which, by mutual agreement, the eldest relative was accompanied to some remote place where they were abandoned to certain death, to avoid burdening the rest of the family. From these episodes of senicide, many of which referred precisely to Aokigahara, the stories became legendary, and over the decades visitors claimed to have seen with their own eyes the yūrei, the spirits of the elderly abandoned to starvation. In the 1960s, Seichō Matsumoto’s novel Kuroi Jukai was published, often translated as The Black Sea of Trees. The book tells of a troubled love story that ends with the two lovers committing suicide in Aokigahara, this time a reference to another practice of voluntary death in Japan: shinjū. It is a very similar concept to the western one of murder-suicide. This is relevant both to love stories (of which the tragic epilogue of the great Japanese writer Osamu Dazai’s life is an example) and also to family situations, even including cases of infanticide (in Japanese culture a suicidal mother who does not end the life of her offspring beforehand is considered abominable). More recently, “consensual” shinjū has become more common, even between strangers, who come into contact via the internet. Then, a very popular book even verges on instigation: The Complete Manual of Suicide, by Wataru Tsurumi, which, for all the reasons given above, defines Aokigahara as the perfect place to die.
All this background contributes to removing magic and increasing pathos while venturing into the trees. Getting lost is very easy, especially in the days following Typhoon Hagibis, which has kindly scattered leaves and branches here and there, disguising even the most beaten tracks. The mobile phone signal is the first thing to go, and in an hour of walking at a brisk pace, you see just a couple of living beings. At most. Some views are truly unforgettable, but the stories, myths, legends and objective data would make even the most daring of hikers paranoid. It will be psychological, but in total solitude, every faint noise sounds just like a whisper. Even having had the good fortune of not finding any dead body, in Aokigahara it is easy to come across vestiges. Those attempting suicide choose to get as far away as possible from the paths, but something is always left behind them. A ticket, a noose, a boot, a doll, a map. Much more frequently, a few strips of adhesive tape placed on the ground, to find the way out in case, at the decisive moment, they don’t have the courage to go through with it.
A social plague
The suicide rate in Japan remains among the highest in the developed world. In 2016, there were 17.3 cases per 100 thousand people, second only to neighbouring South Korea. As in almost all countries, most of the victims are men. Although suicide culture is still today an integral part of Japanese social life, compared to the harakiri of the samurai warriors and the ubasute of the feudal era, in recent times it has been young people who are most affected. Suicide is the leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 39 throughout Japan, higher than the victims of cancer and road accidents put together. In 2018, the worst ever suicide rate among those under the age of 20 was registered, probably linked to pressures deriving from academic performance, a primary source of social inclusion and family satisfaction.
Aokigahara, however, offers a second chance to everyone – to look around, look for the light between the thick foliage, see the majestic profile of Mount Fuji or the clearness of the waters of Lake Sai and to try to think, one step away from oblivion, that in the end the world is not so bad.