AOKIGAHARA FOREST, Japan: Long before YouTube star Logan Paul brought renewed notoriety to this primeval forest at the foot of Mount Fuji by posting a video of a body hanging from a tree, local officials fought to reverse Aokigahara’s bleak reputation as one of Japan’s top suicide destinations.
The forest looms large in the national consciousness, emblematic of a persistent suicide problem in Japan, which has one of the highest suicide rates of developed countries despite improvements in recent years.
At Aokigahara, signs at the foot of walking paths promote a suicide hotline. “Life is a precious thing that your parents gave to you,” the signs read. Another offers a number for help with debt. Locals patrol the forest, talking to people who are alone or show signs of depression or suicidal plans.
Although officials believe such measures have helped to reduce the number of suicides committed in the forest to about 30 a year, down from 100 a decade ago, they worry that the fresh publicity could attract more of the hopeless.
With a canopy of cypresses and pines towering over lumpy, moss-covered lava rocks from Mount Fuji, the forest has an ethereal beauty that evokes Tolkien’s Middle-earth or the Forest of Endor in Star Wars. Well-marked paths wind through the forest’s 7,400 acres, but those who step off the trails can easily hide deep within what is known in Japanese as the Sea of Trees.
“I think people who commit suicide must have tremendous suffering,” said Susumu Maejima, deputy chief of the Fujiyoshida Police Department, whose officers are called when bodies are discovered in the forest. “That’s why we are making efforts to prevent suicide.”
Although he declined to comment directly on Paul’s recent video or its joking and sensationalised manner, he criticised the media attention given to forest suicides in general. “Regardless of the YouTube incident this time, generally speaking, conduct against our suicide prevention efforts is not good,” Maejima said.
One day last week, young couples, families and foreign tourists visited caves and strolled the paths of the forest, where sunlight filtering through the trees belied freezing temperatures.
Walking in Aokigahara with friends, a graduate student from Taiwan who gave her name as Weng-Ian, 21, said she was out to enjoy the landscape. She said she had seen reports of Paul’s video, which drew widespread criticism online, and was disappointed.
“It was disrespectful to the dead person’s family,” she said.
Paul has apologised, calling his posting of the video “misguided.”
Japan has long struggled to combat a high suicide rate. In 2016, according to statistics from the Health Ministry and the national police agency, close to 22,000 people committed suicide, a rate of 17.3 per 100,000 people.
That number is an improvement over a peak in 2003 of close to 34,500 or 27 per 100,000 people.
Work and school pressures have long been blamed for the grim depression that can lead to suicide, as well as social isolation and the lack of mental health services.
The Japanese are also culturally disinclined to seek out therapy, said Tadaichi Nemoto, deputy director of the Mental Health Institute of the Japan Productivity Centre.
Even after the Japanese government required all employers with more than 50 workers to offer regular stress checks, most workers who are advised to see counselors decline to do so, Nemoto said. “People are not energetic enough when they are depressed anyway,” he said. “They don’t want to go to doctors. Japanese people tend to blame themselves.”
Almost 60 per cent of all suicides in Japan take place at home. The government does not provide detailed statistics on individual spots where they occur, but Yamanashi Prefecture, which includes Aokigahara Forest, has the fifth-highest rate of suicide in Japan.
Historically, Aokigahara was known as a place where monks would go to starve themselves to death. According to Japanese folklore, the ghosts of those who have committed suicide wander in
limbo in the forest, and those who enter are at risk of never coming out.
The forest was memorialised in 1960 in the novel Tower of Waves as the romanticised setting for a suicide by a pair of young lovers. The novel was by one of Japan’s most well-known writers, Seicho Matsumoto.
Since then, it has appeared often as a suicide site in other novels, television shows and movies, including two American-made films from 2016, The Forest, a horror thriller, and The Sea of Trees, a drama.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Yutaka Motohashi, director of the Japan Support Centre for Suicide Countermeasures. People come to the forest, he said, “because it’s a famous location.”
The support centre encourages the news media to observe World Health Organisation guidelines by avoiding “detailed information about the site” of even attempted suicides.
But YouTube and other social media add a new dimension, Motohashi said.
“When the guidelines were created, no one thought about the impact of YouTube, which is much more powerful than some conventional media,” he said. “YouTube is a very new way to reveal suicide.”
Late one afternoon this week, a man wearing a cap embroidered with the phrase “special patrol team” described the practical measures he and other forest monitors take to thwart suicides.
The man, who said he was not authorised by his employer, the town of Fujikawaguchiko, to give his name, said that if he sees someone walking alone on a trail, he approaches and starts a conversation.
“If we talk to them, we can often tell their intention,” he said. “People who are trying to commit suicide give really vague answers” about where they are going or what they are doing in the forest.
The patrol worker said that if he suspected someone had come to try to take his own life – most of those who commit suicide here are men – he would call police or ask for the number of a family member and escort the visitor back to a trail entrance.
“I really think it is an important job to save lives,” he said. “But we don’t want the forest to be known as a suicide spot. It’s dishonourable.”
He added, “We just want people to come enjoy this 1,100-year-old forest.” — NEW YORK TIMES