Long Before Video, Japanese Fought Suicide in 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.”


Flowers left this week in the forest, where the number of suicides has been reduced to about 30 a year from about 100 a decade ago.Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Although he declined to comment directly on Mr. Paul’s recent video or its joking and sensationalized manner, he criticized 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,” Chief Maejima said.

One day this 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.

Long Before Video, Japanese Fought Suicide in the ‘Sea of Trees’
Long Before Video, Japanese Fought Suicide in the ‘Sea of Trees’

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 Mr. Paul’s video, which drew widespread criticism online, and was disappointed.

“It was disrespectful to the dead person’s family,” she said.

Mr. Paul apologized Monday, 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. (The rate in the United States in 2014 was 13.5 per 100,000.)

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.


Visitors strolling on a well-marked path in the 7,400-acre Aokigahara Forest.Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

The Japanese are also culturally disinclined to seek out therapy, said Tadaichi Nemoto, deputy director of the Mental Health Institute of the Japan Productivity Center.

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, Mr. 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 percent 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 memorialized in 1960 in the novel “Tower of Waves” as the romanticized 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.


From Aokigahara,Mount Fuji looms in the distance.Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Yutaka Motohashi, director of the Japan Support Center for Suicide Countermeasures. People come to the forest, he said, “because it’s a famous location.”

The support center encourages the news media to observe World Health Organization guidelines by avoiding “detailed information about the site” of even attempted suicides.

But YouTube and other social media add a new dimension, Mr. 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.”

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And when covering the criticism of Mr. Paul’s video, Mr. Motohashi said, “it’s hard for the media to report this particular case while following the W.H.O. guidelines.”

In his video, Mr. Paul described Aokigahara as “haunted” by ghosts who are “vengeful, dedicated to tormenting visitors and luring those that are sad and lost off the path.” He also used an outdated statistic, saying 100 people committed suicide in the forest each year, and claiming “there’s absolutely zero cellphone service” there (although neither I nor my colleagues lost service once during more than two hours of wandering through different parts of the forest).

Mr. Paul is not the only one to spread misinformation about the forest. Japanese news outlets have repeated the myth that suicidal wanderers can easily get lost because compasses are rendered impotent here. But on a tour this week, Masami Kishino, who has worked as a guide for the past decade, showed that his compass worked fine except for one spot in a parking lot.


Signs posted at the foot of walking paths promote a suicide hotline. “Life is a precious thing that your parents gave to you,” this one reads.Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Nor is mythmaking about suicide limited to Aokigahara. Scholars point out that media portrayals frequently depict Japan as a culture where suicide is considered “honorable” or connected to a history of samurai discipline.

Romanticizing such narratives or places like Aokigahara creates “a myth out of what actually should be seen as a pathology,” said Francesca Di Marco, author of “Suicide in Twentieth-Century Japan.”

“Saying, Oh, Japanese people are killing themselves in a beautiful location or are not afraid of committing suicide or are more prone because of samurai or other historical narratives,” said Ms. Di Marco, “is a way to forget that suicide is just the most visible part of a mental illness.”

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 authorized 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 the 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 dishonorable.”

He added, “We just want people to come enjoy this 1,100-year-old forest.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Aokigahara Forest and Tokyo, and Hisako Ueno from Okayama, Japan.

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