The alarm rang at 6 a.m. and off I went. After three hours of travel via subway, train and bus, I was standing outside a cafeteria, drinking coffee and looking at a breathtaking view of Mt. Fuji. I started reflecting on what it is that pulls a person to Aokigahara, the “suicide forest” that lies at the base of the mountain. I had read somewhere that people working on its outskirts have learned to recognize the traits of someone who may make an attempt. I discourteously started looking around, trying to analyze the people to my left and right.
A chilling ascent
For some mysterious reason, Aokigahara forest has been the final destination for thousands of Japanese people taking a one-way, and it has been associated with demons in Japanese mythology for centuries.
The dense, murky forest was long thought to be the haunt of demons and ghosts that wandered the forest and scared travelers. It is also believed to have once been a popular place for “ubasute,” a custom in which a sick or elderly relative was seemingly left in a remote location in a forest or the mountains to die. In the case of Aokigahara, it was said that the victims of ubasute became vindictive ghosts, endlessly roaming the twisted trees.
I visited on a Tuesday morning, and it was not very crowded. My eyes settled on a man in his 30s, his head down, staring at his smartphone. I began to wonder if he could potentially be suicidal. Maybe he was simply checking on his cyber girlfriend. It brought to mind the “otaku” phenomenon: Japanese men who prefer virtual girlfriends over real, flesh-and-blood women. Such men, seemingly lovers of manga, anime and computers, show less interest in sex and relationships, and immerse themselves in their own world, where they are happiest with their virtual partners.
“The fear of rejection is the prime cause for Japanese men to avoid contact with real women,” mused Makoto Fukuda, a young Japanese man I met on my trip to Aokigahara, when I asked why it was so difficult for some Japanese men to commit to a relationship. “The next reason, I guess, is related to the changing position of women in Japanese society. Traditionally, women depended on the men. Now it is changing. The manga girl will never say no to you, while real women will.”
I wondered if the man I was observing just a few feet away from Aokigahara was on the phone with his real girlfriend or a cyber one; that, I will never find out. The awareness of why some people come here is almost paralyzing.
The perfect place to end someone’s life
The first thing I noticed was the disturbing silence. The enormous quantity of closely packed trees blocked out the sun and wind. Even though it was a beautiful sunny day, with no clouds and little breeze, inside the forest it was almost spooky, somewhere between “Sleepy Hollow” (1999) and “The Blair Witch Project” (1999).
It’s perhaps easy to see why this place may influence a person to such an extent that they decide to take their own lives, especially when such writings as Seicho Matsumoto’s 1961 novel “Nami no To (Tower of Waves)” or, more recently, “The Complete Manual of Suicide” (1993) by Wataru Tsurumi suggest that this forest is the perfect place to end one’s life. Wataru gives explicit instructions for a painless death: “Your body will not be found. You will become a missing person and slowly disappear from people’s memory.”
Observing people on the streets, I found myself wondering about them. Had they only recently begun to escape reality to the extent that they see no other option but to commit suicide, or has this suicide genome been carried for centuries?
In Western history, when a noble man or a king was removed from power, he would escape to another country to hide in a foreign court. That was a common practice because all the royal families in Europe were related and no one saw anything wrong in escaping to save one’s own life. After Charles II of England lost to Cromwell’s army during the battle of Worcester in 1651, he fled to France and stayed there until the monarchy was restored in 1660. Then we have Marie Antoinette, who was caught while fleeing from Tuileries, or the more recent escape by Viktor Yanukovych, president of Ukraine, to a neighboring country. Some will do all it takes to survive, even if they have to wait for years for the better times to come.
This doesn’t seem to be the case with the Japanese. There is no room for disobedience here; everyone knows their place. If you do not follow the right path you will be shamed by others. Japanese culture is still very collective, and this is clear throughout the different neighborhoods of Tokyo. Takeshita-dori, a street in the Harajuku district, is a home for Lolitas. If you don’t particularly agree with the strict rules of society, you can escape into this reality. But doing so, you are still a part of a group of people with similar expectations and beliefs. If you are excluded from the group by others, you are left alone and the isolation may lead you to feel that suicide is the only way out.
Subculture of escapism
In Japan, historically, the highborn committed “seppuku” to protect their honor: They preferred to sacrifice their life rather than live in shame. Seppuku in premodern Japan had its origins in the samurai bushido honor code. Samurai preferred to die with honor rather than live with the shame of losing a battle or surrendering. Women also committed suicide; “jigaki” was committed by wives after their samurai husbands committed seppuku.
“It’s true, Japan practiced honor killings. The difference is that the victims did the killing themselves, in the name of honor and pride,” remarked Hiroyuki Matsumoto, a Japanese friend of mine. “In historical times, death was everywhere. War, disease, suffering — it affected everybody, from rich to poor. Suicide was an honorable way out when there were no other options available.”
The two leading causes of modern-day suicide in Japan are economic hardship and clinical depression, but the stigma attached to mental health is still very strong and prevents many people from seeking help, he added.
Still, modern medicine, social services and support systems lead the Japanese to live longer and better. As standards of living increase, suicide rates have declined.
“The Western view of suicide as something to be ashamed of, as something very dark and very bad, is beginning to take hold in Japan as well,” my friend continued. “While suicide is still tolerated in Japan, the way it’s being perceived is changing, from something honorable and morally acceptable in earlier centuries to an act that now can be also labeled as selfish and desperate.”
Aokigahara is a beautiful forest, with caves, lakes and stunning views. It does feel spooky at times, but that could just be the imagination. Oscar Wilde said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” Who are we to say no to people who decide that they have lived enough and come to Aokigahara to finish their existence? Perception of the place depends on us and us only. And in my perception, it is above all the magnificent beauty of the forest that makes it worth visiting.