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Beyond Death and Pain: The Truth About Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest’

The forest itself is lost in a global media loop de-emphasizing its natural beauty in favor of tragedy. The first step to save the forest is reclaiming its name: It's called the "Sea of Trees" not the "suicide forest."

By 8 min read

During the New Year in 2018, Japan’s biggest family holiday, YouTube star Logan Paul made controversy by posting a video of himself encountering a dead body inside a Japanese forest. The forest goes by the name of Aokigahara.

It formed out of a devastating volcanic eruption that occurred in the year 864. Since then, the forest has been associated with death in Japan that continues to this day. There is a history, sad and real, of people venturing into Aokigahara to take their own lives. Why is debatable, but it has been attributed to the aforementioned catastrophic eruption, the forest’s history as a place for abandoning the elderly, and Seicho Matsumoto’s famous 1961 novel Nami no To (Tower of Waves).

Nevertheless, the forest also holds ethereal beauty, begging to be separated from the stigma as a place where people go to die.

It’s a compelling myth, the “suicide forest.” But myths can be rewritten. To deny Aokigahara’s tragic history would be disrespectful to the lives lost there. However, letting it inhabit the same dark corner of the human imagination would imbue it with the wrong kind of power.

The Sea of Trees

Photo:
The moss blanketing the exposed tree roots in Jukai absorbs water for them the way soil would.

Although the forest is name Aokigahara (青木ヶ原), it also known as Aokigahara Jukai (樹海), or “Sea of Trees” in Japanese. However, those names may not roll off the tongue as easily for people outside Japan.

In the English-speaking world, the phrase “suicide forest” renders the place simple, conceptually. It also attaches an immediate stigma to Aokigahara, one that can easily be mitigated by instead using the more poetic nickname “Sea of Trees.” This name better captures the full grandeur of how this wind-swept forest appears from the mountain with its treetops undulating like waves.

Nearby Mt. Fuji is a stunning natural landmark known worldwide for its beauty. This forest should be, too. After all, the Golden Gate Bridge is a well-known spot for jumpers. Yet, it’s not called the “suicide bridge.”

When you stop invoking death with every reference to a place and supplant that idea with something more graceful, the tone of the conversation changes; thus, let us not reduce Aokigahara to a suicide forest. Call it the Sea of Trees.

The harm of sensationalism

Photo:
A sign in the Sea of Trees points out Amayadori no Ana, a hole in the ground that can be used as a rain shelter.

Stories of the Sea of Trees have run rampant around the globe. The internet is full of headlines about it, with major news sites like CNNTimeThe Telegraph, and The Japan Times trumpeting that exact phrase, “Japan’s suicide forest,” in place of its name. Many of these sites offer the enticement of taking the reader “inside” said forest.

This has given rise to a morbid fascination with the Aokigahara. The forest has been the subject of a Vice documentary and two Hollywood films: 2015’s The Sea of Trees, starring Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe, and 2016’s The Forest, starring Natalie Dormer.

The films build upon an existing tradition of Japanese literature and folklore that has, in the past, drawn associations between the forest and death. Tales of romantic suicide, ubasute (the abandonment of the elderly to die), and ghost stories have helped layer mystique around the Sea of Trees.

The suicide myth has historically been fed as much at home as abroad, with influential Japanese books ranging from fiction (Seicho Matsumoto’s novel Nami no To, or “Tower of Waves”) to nonfiction (Wataru Tsurumi’s controversial 1993 book Kanzen Jisatsu Manyuaru, or “The Complete Manual of Suicide.”)

Popular anime Tokyo Ghoul also plays into Aokigahara’s history of death as a place where ghouls feed on the dead.

Dispelling the myth

Photo:
A spot on the Jukai Nature Trail where the ground beside the trail drops off in a sunken pit.

Once you set foot in the forest, it has a surreal, sobering effect on the mind. Suddenly the Sea of Trees is now a real place.

For some, the idea they have of Aokigahara is so much more mythic than the actual location that they are bound to be either disappointed or more scared than they should be. Dark tourists hoping for a macabre thrill are more likely to be disappointed.

The trees in the forest do bear an exotic, gnarled appearance because they grew out of hardened lava. Their roots could not penetrate to the usual depth. The flow of the lava left the ground with an uneven surface before hardening, where it is not unusual to see trees partially uprooted, along with gaping holes—cave-like recesses—that have formed in the ground.

Further adding to the alien planet vibe are the moss-covered roots that lay exposed everywhere. Stories of a deathly, all-enveloping quietness and compasses that cease functioning inside the forest are greatly exaggerated. Birds do chirp, other hikers do come along, and if you hold a compass in the palm of your hand, it should work just fine.

A sacred forest

Photo:
Light filtering in through the treetops in the Sea of Trees.

Talking to Japanese people one-on-one and in informal group discussions, some say they would almost rather the Sea of Trees be closed off entirely. A fierce protective streak manifests itself in locals from nearby Fujinomiya. They regard Mt. Fuji and the surrounding area—including this forest at the mountain base—as shinsei (sacred).

Curious sightseers, they feel, are only likely to trample the dry and delicate volcanic landscape, leaving the forest littered with trash. However, closing off the forest to the public might only stoke the mystery of it.

If the allure of that mystery will draw tourists to the place, no matter what, maybe another tactic would just be to continue the counter-narrative: accentuating its natural beauty among visitors. Maybe if more people visited the Sea of Trees instead of just imagining it based on sensational media, it would help dispel some of the spooky notions floating around out there.

Visiting Aokigahara Jukai

Photo:
Saiko Iyashi no Sato Nenba with Mt. Fuji in the background.

What international articles about Aokigahara often fail to mention is that well-trafficked sightseeing spots surround the forest. A convenient bus service now connects the entire area from Lake Kawaguchiko to Lake Motosuko. This area represents four out of the Fuji Five Lakes.

Fujikyu’s fleet of sightseeing buses makes it easy for people to disembark from the Saiko Bat Cave parking lot, right near the head of the Jukai Nature Trail. This trail cuts straight through the forest, clearly labeled as “A sea of trees, Aokigahara,” on the bus’s guide map.

The official tourism website of Yamanashi Prefecture even outlines a suggested walking course through Aokigahara. Listing it as “a point of pride to the world.” The website invites visitors to “savor this stunning primeval forest.” At the Saiko Bat Cave Information Center, they even offer guided nature tours.

The page with the walking course on it does give a reminder that “visitors may not leave the walking trail to enter the woodlands area.” Other than that, it does not allude to anything terrible in the woods. 

The forest in Fuji-san’s foothills is a place that should be treated with appropriate reverence or avoided altogether. It deserves to be reclaimed as a scenic nature spot. Be respectful in the Sea of Trees, or don’t go there at all. If you decide to visit, stick to the Jukai Nature Trail and take advantage of other sights in and around Lake SaikoLake Shojiko and the rest of the Fuji Five Lakes area.

Nevertheless

Still, people do commit suicide in Aokigahara. It is not rare to find abandoned cars in the area or string leading from trails—a sign someone has ventured deep into the forests to contemplate not coming back. People will leave behind string so they can find their way back if they change their mind. If you are visiting Aokigahara and spot something that makes you feel uneasy or concerned, don’t hesitate to report it to the local guides and authorities.

And if you are reading about or considering visiting Aokigahara because of depression or dark thoughts, please reach out to friends and family. You are not alone, and there are multiple ways to find help in Japan:

  • TELL (Tokyo English Lifeline) has a variety of resources available to help you in a time of crisis. Give them a call on 03-5774-0992. Their chat services also help you to speak about your condition online if you feel uncomfortable calling them.
  • Tokyo Counseling Services, provides individual counseling, couples counseling, marriage and family counseling, group therapy and psychotherapy services. Counseling and therapy services are available in English, French, German, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese for all residents living in the Tokyo Metropolis and Kanto region. Tel: (03) 5431-3096. Email: tokyocounselingservices@gmail.com.
  • There’s also general mental health information on Japan Health Care Info’s website.
  • The Japan Helpline has info and resources for areas across the country for everything from medical help to other emergencies.
  • Tokyo Meguro Counseling Center: English speaking psychiatrists provide psychological counseling, psychotherapy including insight-oriented psychodynamic therapy, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), supportive psychotherapy, life coaching, marital/divorce, family, child & adolescent counseling, and psychopharmacology-integrated psychotherapy.
  • Tokyo Psychiatry Clinic: Native English psychiatry services: from consultations in English to a distinctively Western treatment approach. Consultations by appointment only. Not covered by Japanese Health Insurance.

Have you visited the Sea of Trees? Do you think its natural beauty has gotten unfairly overshadowed by sensational tales? Is there an effective counter-narrative to the stories of tragedy that have been perpetuated? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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