Aokigahara Forest in Japan is known as “the perfect place to die.” Across the world, people call it the Suicide Forest, because thousands of desperate individuals have taken their own lives in the beauty of its natural surroundings. Why have countless people chosen to go to this spot to end life, and how have Japan’s culture and history led to this macabre phenomenon?
Dense with trees, streams, and lush vegetation, the famous Japanese forest is home to a variety of animals such as deer, bears, and foxes. But those are not the only things in the woods there. Decaying human bodies are strewn throughout the thickets. Due to the fact that this is a heavily wooded area with rocky crags and caves, many of them have never been found. It is estimated that over 100 people go to this “Sea of Trees” to end their lives each year.
National Rates of Self-Induced Death
Historically, Japan has had very high rates of suicide. Incidents rose dramatically since the 90s. In 2012, Japan had the 17th highest rate in the world. Since then, numbers have dropped, and in the last three years, there have been less than 30,000 cases per year. In 2014, the number was 25,000. The main external reasons for these high rates are unemployment, personal hardships, and depression. However, the foundation runs deep into Japanese culture and belief systems stemming from the days of the Samurai.
History of Seppuku
In Japan, Seppuku is a method that the Samurai used to take their own lives. Another term for this same act is Harakiri. It involved cutting open one’s own abdomen to reveal the bowels. The first documented Samurai to end his own life was in 1180. Since then, the act became entwined with a deep sense of honor and respect. Samurai who failed in their endeavors, committed crimes, or brought shame to their leaders were expected or sometimes forced to take their own lives. It was even honorable for the wives of fallen warriors to commit seppuku.
Religion and Seppuku in Nature
Seppuku carried over into the 21st century. Although the preferred method is now jumping in front of trains, a high number of people choose to end life in the natural surroundings of the Forest. The reason they select this wooded area largely stems from historical religious beliefs. The primary religion of Japan is Shinto, which incorporates many gods into its system. In addition to dwelling in shrines, the gods also live in nature. Thus, special features of the natural world, such as rivers, trees, unique rocks, and mountains embody a deep sense of spirit and are subjects of worship.
Beliefs About Death at Aokigahara
The paradoxical truth about the Suicide Forest is that its natural beauty and location are what draw people to take their own lives there. Nestled in the foothills of the beloved Mt. Fuji, Aokigahara sits at a divine juncture between this world and the next. Because the Japanese have always had a profound reverence for the actively volcanic Mount Fuji, it truly seems for them to be “the perfect place to die.” Japanese commonly call the mountain “Fujisan” out of deep respect, and it has been the subject of worship for a long time. The Niponica website explains the connection between mountains and death in Japan:
In ancient times there arose a belief that, after death, the spirits of those who had left their earthly form climbed up mountains and became gods (kami) at the summit. Then they were transformed into household gods (ujigami), ready to protect their families[…]And so it was that mountains became the abode of gods and buddhas, the highest, most sacred place around.Unknown
In this belief, a person could be more helpful to their loved ones in death rather than in life.
Ending one’s own life was once a quiet epidemic that nobody wanted to discuss in Japan. However, starting in about 2005, Japanese officials began to see it as a major social problem. Skyrocketing numbers of self-induced deaths prompted intense public awareness campaigns. According to World Health Organization reports, rates dropped below 30,000 in 2012 for the first time since 1998. Supposedly, authorities are no longer publishing rates of self-killings in their attempt to draw less attention to the matter.
At Aokigahara the parking lot has surveillance cameras to record everyone who comes and, hopefully, leaves. Park officials monitor the areas and watch for suspicious self-destructive behaviors. At the trailhead, Japanese language signs urge suicidal individuals to seek help and to think about their families. Additionally, a hotline help number is there for those who need to talk to someone.
Still, many people with thoughts of hopelessness flock to this forest each year. Thus, bodies still lie hidden in the trees and rocks, and annual sweeps of the woods always turn up cadavers.
Paranormal Superstitions About the Suicide Forest
Individuals who survived attempts to kill themselves speak of a demonic force that called them there. Some say they felt compelled, while others claim they felt dragged into the woods. Japanese folklore claims that terrifying spirits and demons glide among the trees. Visitors sometimes say they catch a glimpse of ghosts in their peripheral view.
Spiritualists of Japan believe the paranormal activity results from the self-killings. According to that idea, the souls of the dead permeate the soil and trees. Folklore tells us that many people who enter cannot find their way out of the dark depths of the woods.
Legends of ancient times refer to these woods as the place where people abandoned family members they could not care for when food was scarce. Usually, it was the elderly who went first. All alone in the woods, the people suffered painful deaths from starvation or exposure to the elements. Their vengeful souls may still haunt the woods.
In Pop Culture
Another factor contributing to the problems with the forest is the sensationalism in pop culture. This led to a romanticized idea of ending life there.
In 1960, Seicho Matsumoto published a book called Kuroi Kaiju. This title translates to “Black Sea of Trees.” In the book, Matsumoto writes about two lovers who kill themselves at Aokigahara. Although some people say it was the book that caused the dark trend in the Forest, numerous deaths there actually predate the book.
Another book surfaced in 1993 that highlights these Japanese woods as “a perfect place to die.” Additionally, Wataru Tsurumi’s The Complete Suicide Manual describes how to carry out one’s own demise. He recommended that people hang themselves. Hence, authorities have often found the text next to human remains that hung from the trees by a rope.
A number of movies have also featured Aokigahara. Most recently The Forest and The Sea of Trees portrayed these woods as a dark and demonic place from which people are lucky to escape.
Restoring the True Spirit of the Woods
The Samurai culture of honor seppuku, coupled with religious beliefs about death and mountains has resulted in the Sea of Trees being perceived as an ideal place to take one’s own life. Although the government appears to be making a dent in the number, the rate is still very high. People continue to take their own lives in the Suicide Forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji. However, in time, perhaps Aokigahara will be restored back to its pristine spirit of nature. Instead of being known as “the perfect place to die,” it will be known as the most peaceful and lush place to enjoy nature’s beauty.