Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

June 26, 2011

JAPAN: Inside Japan's "Suicide Forest"

TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / Life in Japan / June 26, 2011

Remnants: Shoes for a man, a woman and a child left in the Aokigahara Jukai forest on the flank of Mount Fuji in Yamanashi Prefecture. The name in part translates as "Sea of Trees," though with good reason it is often referred to as "Suicide Forest." Rob Gilhooly Photos

Inside Japan's 'Suicide Forest'
By Rob Gilhooly
Special to The Japan Times

I am walking through Aokigahara Jukai forest, the light rapidly fading on a mid-winter afternoon, when I am stopped dead in my tracks by a blood-curdling scream. The natural reaction would be to run, but the forest floor is a maze of roots and slippery rocks and, truth be told, I am lost in this vast woodland whose name, in part, translates as "Sea of Trees."

Inexplicably, I find myself moving toward the sound, searching for signs of life. Instead, I find death.
The source of that scream remains a mystery as, across a clearing, I see what looks like a pile of clothes. But as I approach, it becomes apparent it's more than just clothes I've spotted.

Rites of remembrance: At a point overlooking a section of the 30-sq.-km Aokigahara Jukai forest, Buddhist priest Showzen Yamashita offers prayers for the untold number of people who have entered that "Sea of Trees" wilderness but failed to make it out alive.

In a small hollow, just below a tree, and curled up like a baby on a thick bed of dead leaves, lies a man, his thinning gray hair matted across his balding cranium. His pasty upper torso is shirtless, while his legs are covered only by black long johns — with blue-striped boxers sticking out above the waistband — and a pair of woolly socks.

Under his bent legs a pair of slacks, a white shirt and a jacket have been spread out as a cushion at his final resting place. Scattered around are innumerable documents, a briefcase and other remnants of a former life. Nearer to him are items more closely related to his demise: empty packets of prescription pills, beer cans, and bottles of liquor.

Seemingly this man, who looks to be in his mid-50s, had drawn his last breath before I heard that unsourced, chilling cry.

That I came across a body in this forest was a shock, but not a surprise. For half a century, thousands of life-weary Japanese have made one-way trips to this sprawling, 30-sq.-km tract of woodland in Yamanashi Prefecture on the northwest flank of 3,776-meter Mount Fuji, the nation's highest peak. It's a dark place of stark beauty, long associated with demons in Japanese mythology — and one that has earned itself the unfortunate appellation of "Suicide Forest."

Evidence of such pilgrimages is strewn amid the dense undergrowth. Four pairs of moss-covered shoes are lined up on the gnarled roots of a tree — two adult-size pairs and two children's pairs.

Further on there's an envelope of photos, one showing a young man, another two small children dressed in colorful kimonos and elementary school uniform. 

Together with the photos there's a typed note "To Hide" (most likey the name of a man), including the final stanza of "Song of the Open Road," Walt Whitman's poem from 1900 that ends with the line: "Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?"

Nobody can know exactly how that line was answered — there was no sign of life, no sign of human remains. Local police suggest wild animals often get to corpses before they do, so clouding the issue of exactly how many achieve their goal and end it all here.

Signs of life and death : Tape left following sweeps of the forest.

Nonetheless, bodies are frequently discovered in monthly sweeps coordinated by the police and local volunteer firemen. As they move around the forest, these searchers leave color-coded plastic tapes strung between trees to mark where they have searched and where they have found items or bodies — or sometimes simply to mark their way back out of this sylvan maze.

Altogether, police records show that 247 people made suicide attempts in the forest in 2010 — 54 of them successfully.

Local officials and residents believe that number could be significantly higher.

"There are people who come here to end their lives in Aokigahara Jukai but, uncertain as to where exactly the forest is, kill themselves in neighboring woodland," said Masamichi Watanabe, chief of the Fujigoko Fire Department that covers this area. Even so, his officers still recover an annual average of 100 people from the forest in various states of consciousness — including an increasing number who tried to take their lives by inhaling toxic gas in their cars, either from the exhaust or charcoal-burners they bring with them.

"What is certain, though, is that the numbers continue to rise each year," Watanabe added.

A necktie noose (hanging and drug overdoses are the most common means of suicide there) 

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