Located at the base of Mount Fuji, the Aokigahara Forest is known as the Jukai, or “sea of trees.” The place is unfortunately famous because it is preferred by many Japanese people who decide to end their lives.
“Your life is a beautiful gift from your parents. Please think of parents, siblings and children. Talk about your problems, don’t keep them to yourself.”
This is the message in Japanese on one of the signs at the entrance to Aokigahara, a forest located in Yamanashi Prefecture, 100 kilometers from Tokyo and occupying about 35 square kilometers of the natural park at the foot of Mount Fuji.
The forest has the sad reputation of being the place where many Japanese end up taking their own lives.
A world without life
Inside this expanse of leaves, absolute silence reigns (the cell phone signal is very weak and the wind is blocked by the trees, making the place very quiet).
Wildlife is almost non-existent and the area is full of caves.
The forest is such a deep sea of trees and it’s so easy to get lost here that hikers often leave colorful ribbons tied to the trees to facilitate the return to civilization of those with suicidal thoughts.
And Aokigahara is one of the places in Japan where a lot of suicides are committed.
The origins of this sinister reputation as a suicide spot can be traced back to the 19th century, when poor families would abandon sick or elderly relatives to die in the woods, practicing a form of “euthanasia” that in Japanese is called “ubasute” .
Literature also contributed to the fame of this place. Works such as Watary Tsurumi’s Complete Manual of Suicide from 1993, currently banned in Japan, or Seicho Matsumoto’s Nami No Tou, published in the 1960s, in which two lovers choose the forest to commit suicide , make Aokigahara the perfect setting for dark-minded Japanese.
A green sea of loneliness
To enter the bowels of Aokigahara is to enter a deep, dark ocean of trees that some call Jukai, “the sea of trees,” where it is very easy to get lost.
The traces left by the people who choose to die here are visible even before you delve into the thicket: abandoned cars in the park’s parking lot, ropes hanging from trees and pill bottles left next to bodies and skeletons still dressed in the clothes they wore the last day.
There is a group of volunteers who scour the forest paths looking for the bodies of those who have decided to take their own lives, many of whom are found months later.
It is not uncommon to find flowers and small shrines erected by the relatives of the deceased at the base of the trees where the bodies were found.
In Japan, suicide is viewed differently than in the West
In a documentary film made by Vice (embedded below) geologist Azusa Hayano walks through the forest in search of footprints left by visitors.
“When you find a forgotten tent, it means that the person who went into the forest was still struggling with the idea. It could also be the fact that the body was not found. But the most important thing about your job is locating people in life and trying to convince them that they deserve to live on,” Hayano says in the documentary.
For Wataru Nishida, a psychologist at Temple University in Tokyo, “isolation is the main cause of depression and suicide.”
The history of Kamikaze fighters and the samurai tradition of Seppuku – “honorable death” – are frequently invoked in an attempt to explain this problem.
Suicide culture could be a factor, but for Nishida, the most plausible explanation is that in Japan the Christian tradition is not rooted, so suicide was never considered a sin.
Moreover, in Japanese society, suicide is seen as a way of taking responsibility. The truth is that in this country suicide is the leading cause of death for men between the ages of 20 and 44.
These numbers “exploded” with the financial crisis of the 1990s.
The YouTube episode
In 2018, Aokigahara Forest once again entered the spotlight. Paul Logan, a celebrity youtuber who had toured the forest, uploaded a video on his channel in which images of a person’s body hanging from a rope appeared.
As if it were a parody, Logan asked himself on camera, “When did it all get so real?” All the while, he could barely contain his laughter.
Negative reactions on social media were not slow to appear. Logan was accused of doing so for publicity and profiting from the morbid imagery.
Youtuber-ul apologized to his audience via his Twitter account, claiming that he presented the video to raise awareness of the suicide drama, not to attract new subscribers.
But his explanations did not convince, and after Logan’s statement, YouTube was bombarded with requests to terminate his channel, which, on the other hand, now has more than 21.7 million subscribers.