True stories

Japan’s ‘suicide forest’ is creepier and sadder than any movie

Japan Times

The locals say three types pass through: hikers, rubberneckers, and those who aren’t planning to come back out.

There are signs posted telling visitors to think about it. Park rangers walk the trails, telling anyone they come across to go back Abandoned cars litter the parking lot and shoes and discarded clothes line the walkways.

It’s the Sea of Trees, Aokigahara, the suicide forest at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan.

You may have heard of this suicide forest recently, as it is the titular setting of the new horror film, “The Forest,” set to be released soon.

The true suicide forest, however, is terrifying enough on its own.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Japanese men between the ages of 20 and 44. It is beginning to look like an epidemic among teens as well. For the elderly, it’s a problem, too, as Japanese life insurance (for the most part) still pays out in suicide cases. There doesn’t appear to be any sector of Japanese society that is not dealing with suicide, and one of the most popular places to do it is in Aokigahara Forest.

Since 1971, authorities have removed upward of 100 bodies a year from the forest, making it the second-most popular suicide spot in the world, behind the Golden Gate Bridge. And that’s just the bodies that were discovered in the 14 square mile area. In the early 2000s, local government stopped reporting on the number of suicides in the forest, but it didn’t have any effect on stopping people.

In 2014, around 25,000 Japanese people, mostly men, committed suicide. This number was an improvement over years past. Isolation from modern society and financial failure are common causes. According to The Guardian:

In many cases, it is considered an honourable way to escape the shame of failure. “The Japanese do not feel that suicide is something bad, and it becomes part of aesthetics and part of accepted behaviour,” Masao Miyamoto, a psychiatrist and author, has said.

Japan’s history of “honorable suicide” by samurai and kamikaze pilots in World War II are believed to be reasons for the high numbers, and though many people in Japan are trying to change that, it’s an uphill battle—it’s not exactly culturally acceptable to ask for help.

Along the many trails in Aokigahara there are signs.

The above reads: “Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Think about them and the rest of your family. You don’t have to suffer alone.” Below is the number for a suicide hotline. Scattered around the area are phone boxes that connect to helplines for free.

The first suicide in the forest is believed to have been that of a Buddhist monk who wandered in to purify himself through starving to death. Other monks followed, and a death-destination was born.

There are purportedly places in the dense forest where the sun beams don’t reach the ground and wind can’t pass through, leaving the place very quiet and very still. The “Sea of Trees” descriptor comes from observers above who get the sensation of watching waves (the wind moves the tops of the trees) when looking at the forest. There are no animals, and iron deposits in the area’s volcanic soil are believed to cause compasses to malfunction and GPS devices to sputter, leaving even experienced hikers lost and confused.

It’s widely believed that a custom called ubasute, where elderly relatives are taken away and left to die, was practiced in the area, their souls now haunting the trees and the forest’s visitors. Tengu, bird-like demons, are thought to haunt the place, too; some have claimed to have seen white spectral beings glide between the trees. Survivors have said the forest pulls people in one direction or another, though that could be a result of the area’s strange topography.

Ultimately, the place just looks creepy.

Another cause for the surge in suicides in the Sea of Trees may lie in the written word. Kuroi Jukai (which, surprise, translates to ‘Sea of Trees’) is a 1960 novel by Seichō Matsumoto in which a pair of young lovers take their lives in the forest. In 1993, Wataru Tsurumi wrote a guidebook for those looking to kill themselves, The Complete Suicide Manual; in it he praised hanging (the most common method those who perish among the Sea of Trees employ) as a “work of art” and called Aokigahara the ideal place to die, saying your body will be impossible to find and “You will become a missing person and slowly disappear from people’s memory.” (The book was a best-seller but was ultimately met with backlash and nearly banned in the country.)

Ultimately, though, there is no rhyme or reason to why the forest draws in so many to die. In a documentary by VICE (warning: it’s graphic at points), a geologist named Azusa Hayano who studies the forest says he has no idea even after coming across, from his estimates, 100 bodies over two decades. The items left behind, ranging from straightforward suicide notes and abandoned camp sites to trail markers, can point to what a person was thinking. Others think the ropes are just to make the corpse easier to find. In either case, they’re everywhere in the forest.

“In most cases if you follow the tape you find something at the end,” Hayano states matter-of-factly.

Hayano tries to help the living he comes across and he’s not alone. One of the last places one can stop before entering the forest is a small shopping center near the main entrance where employees became so attuned to who was going into the area to die that they began warning police.

“They’re easy to spot,” cashier Kazuaki Amano told the AP. “They wander around for a while before starting down the trail and are careful not to make eye contact with anyone.”

There’s a new horror movie about Aokigahara out, which has run into white-washing accusations, as it stars a white woman. Whether the movie is problematic, scary or even good, is beside the point. The real story of the Sea of Trees is so touched with sadness it’d be impossible to match it in fiction. Isn’t it even more troubling to make a PG-13 jump-scare fest about a mass grave?

The stigma of mental health problems in Japan doesn’t look like it’s going away. Aokigahara is likely to remain a morbid site long after The Forest passes from memory.

Story Tags