Spirits Of Death In A Sea Of Trees - Japan's Suicide Forest
Written By: Terri Pressley
“I think the way we live in society these days has become more complicated. Face-to-face communication used to be vital, but now we can live our lives being online all day. However, the truth of the matter is, we still need to see each other’s faces, hear their voices, read their expressions, so we can fully understand their emotions. To coexist.”
~Azusa Hayano, Geologist, Park Ranger, and Suicide Patrolman
Aokigahara (青木ヶ原), also known as the Sea of Trees (樹海) or Jukai, is a 14 square mile forest that lies at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan. Due to the wind-blocking density of the trees and an absence of wildlife, the forest is known for being exceptionally quiet and for the thickness of its trees. It is a twisting network of woody vines, and has a dangerous unevenness of the forest floor. It is rocky, cold, and littered with over 200 underground caves you could fall into accidentally. The forest is full of paradox and contrast. Its historic association with demons in Japanese mythology has long made it a popular place for suicides.
Japan has more than 30,000 suicides a year for over 14 years— one of the highest rates among industrialized nations. On average, someone in Japan dies by his own hand every 15 minutes, usually a man. The Aokigahara Forest is the most common place to commit suicide in Japan, and it is widely thought to be the second most likely site in the world, after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The reasons are complex.
In 1960, Seicho Matsumoto wrote a popular novel called ” Nami no Tō” or “Tower of Wave,” in which a couple commits suicide in Aokigahara Forest. These woods are described as the “perfect place to die” by the author Wataru Tsurumi in the book, “Kanzen Jisatsu Manyuaru “or “The Complete Manual of Suicide.” His best seller has been found next to many bodies in the woods with hanging undoubtedly being the most common method of suicide used in the forest. In addition, Mount Fuji is a revered and sacred site in Japan.
There is also a long, romantic history of honorable suicide in Japan, from the Samurai’s desire to avoid disgrace to the kamikaze pilots of World War II. Suicide is much less stigmatized in Japan than in many Western societies.
What those hoping to take their lives may not consider is the impact the suicides have on the locals and forest workers. In the words of one local man, "It bugs the hell out of me that the area's famous for being a suicide spot." In addition, a local police officer said, "I've seen plenty of bodies that have been really badly decomposed... There's nothing beautiful about dying in there."
The forest workers have it even worse than the police do. The workers must carry the bodies down from the forest to the local station, where they are placed in a special room used specifically to house suicide corpses. Then a forest worker must sleep in the room with the corpse. It is believed that if the corpse is left alone, it is very bad luck for the yurei of the suicide victims. Their spirits are said to scream through the night, and their bodies will move on their own.
There are many stories and legends of Yurei and Oni associated with Aokigahara. Adding to the general foreboding atmosphere, many claim that there is a large, underground, magnetic iron ore deposit that renders compasses, cell phones, and GPS systems useless. It has been said this is one of the reasons so many become lost in the forest never to return.
Aokigahara is linked to ancient demons in Japanese myth and is considered the most haunted location in Japan. Aokigahara has also been dubbed the "Purgatory of Yurei.” Hikers have often seen apparitions as well as heard the howl of Yurei (幽霊) on the wind. These spirits are said to haunt Aokigahara forest in large numbers, particularly between the hours of 2 and 3 am: Japan’s ‘witching hour’ – when the veil between the physical world and the spiritual world is at its thinnest.
The Japanese strongly believe that if a person dies in a sudden, unnatural, or violent manner then the spirit will turn into a Yūrei. They also believe that if the body is not properly buried, or if the person died with strong negative feelings such as depression or rage, then the spirit will also turn into a Yūrei. People committing suicide in Aokigahara forest fit all three criteria.
Some have reported objects moving and seeing shadows amongst the trees. Spiritualists say that the trees themselves are filled with a malevolent energy, accumulated from decades of suicides. They try to prevent you from getting back out. They say if you look hard at the trees, you can see the faces of the dead in the bark. Others believe that evil spirits in the forest put ideas of suicide in people’s heads and will not allow them to leave the forest.
The forest is also said to have been a site for ubasute, literally meaning, “Abandoning an old woman.” During the famines that gripped the area in the 19th century, ubasute was the practice of leaving an ill or elderly family member in the forest to die of exposure, starvation, or dehydration.
In recent years, the local government has stopped publicizing the numbers in an attempt to downplay Aokigahara’s association with suicide. Signs have been put up by the police around the forest with messages like “Your life is a precious gift from your parents,” and “Please consult with the police before you decide to die,” in an attempt to discourage those whose thoughts have turned to suicide. Unfortunately, it shows no sign of decreasing despite government measures to discourage it.
Today, the forest is littered with colored tape used by those on their last trip into the forest, discarded belongings, nooses, and other items used to facilitate the suicides as well as bouquets, signs and pictures left by grieving friends and family members.
“You think you die alone, but that’s not true….Nobody is alone in this world. We have to coexist and take care of each other. That’s how I feel.”
~Azusa Hayano, Geologist, Park Ranger, and Suicide Patrolman
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