The following story may contain triggering and/or sensitive material.
Topics discussed include suicide and suicidal ideologies.
The signs read:
“Your life is a precious gift from your parents.”
Aokigahara is a sprawling expanse of shadowy trees at the base of Mount Fuji. Looking at the scenery from a distance, it’s easy to see why this place is called Jukai—“The Sea of Trees”—and hard to imagine this beauty as a place of death.
It’s no secret that Japan has a high suicide rate, with males making up most of the percentage (71%). The Japanese face exceedingly high expectations in their lives—from their jobs, their families, and society. They are known for being hard and efficient workers, but these high expectations seem to come at a high cost.
I love Japan, and am absolutely fascinated by Japanese culture. I dream of the chance to go and experience it for myself one day. But my fascination does not blind me to how fundamentally wrong the existence of karoshi is.
Literally translating into “overwork death”, this term is used when someone dies from a heart attack or other health condition caused from a high stress work environment, something too common in Japan. In terms of mental health, the meaning of karoshi stretches out to those who commit suicide because they can no longer take the pressure.
When it comes to Aokigahara, the authorities no longer release the official number of deaths to the public but it’s believed that approximately 100 suicides take place each year. Determining an official count is extremely difficult, as forest wildlife often find the bodies before anyone else. Many of the bodies are never recovered—sometimes all that remains is a shoe, a note, a photograph.
Although Aokigahara has long been associated with death, it didn’t become a suicide hotspot until the 1960 publication of Seichō Matsumoto’s Tower of Waves, in which broken-hearted lovers enter the forest to commit suicide. This novel, along with a host of other popular mediums for such chilling stories, highlighted the forest as a beacon to the end.
In Japan, suicide was historically seen as an honorable way for samurai and warriors to redeem themselves when they had failed, known as seppuku. To be a warrior and turn down the chance of seppuku was considered a huge disgrace to one’s family and lord.
Even though we no longer live in such an era, did those people feel as though they failed and needed redemption when they walked into Aokigahara?
As someone who struggles with mental illness and suicidal ideation, I tend to look at such stories with a more personal perspective. But my focus isn’t their reasons for wanting to leave this world behind. Any sort of reasoning in that capacity is futile to justify. There are no definite answers no matter how desperately loved ones want them. Such a situation is too inexplicable and we will never know what the dead once thought.
So as morbid as this may sound, my focus is why they chose this specific location to pass on.
For the sake of a mere blog post, discussing this place can be as easy as dividing fact from fiction. But I want to focus on what this forest symbolizes—the loss of loved ones who were unable to accept or see what they had to live for—and that is much harder.
Mythologically speaking, Aokigahara is a place where dark spirits are said to lurk and lure poor, lost souls to untimely deaths. These souls are trapped and tormented, screaming throughout each night ever after. The eerie, chilling atmosphere and overall aesthetic of the forest make it a believable home for such entities.
I don’t believe this is the case. I believe that, in a time where supernatural beings held court over cultural morality, this was what grieving mothers, friends, and family members told themselves to ease their pain, justify their loved one's decision, and hopefully end the torment of not knowing.
“How could they have chosen this?”
“How could they leave me?”
“Was I not enough?”
So demons did it. Demons, hungry ghosts, evil spirits forced their loved ones to make themselves disappear. The forest and all within it consumed their souls, a belief that coated grief and made it an easier pill to swallow.
Many of the hungry ghosts within Aokigahara are rumored victims of ubasute: an old practice where families would abandon their elders in the wilderness during times of hardship, leaving them to die of starvation. Many of these unfortunate souls linger and ensnare the living so that they, too, become lost.
Since Aokigahara is the location of two other tourist sites, the Narusawa Ice Cave and the Fugaku Wind Cave, the forest is still a hotspot for tourism despite its dark reputation. Tourists are warned to prepare carefully and stay on designated paths, as it’s quite easy for wanderers to get lost. Those brave enough to venture otherwise will find navigational devices—such as compasses and cellphones—useless. Instead, those who enter Aokigahara and wish to return will pack tree markers, tape, and other items to identify their trails and make their way out.
Folklore eagerly blames this on supernatural energy and entities, but there is a more logical explanation.
Much of Aokigahara’s paranormal activity is geologically induced. The forest soil is rich in magnetic iron deposited from past volcanic activity from Mount Fuji. This iron interferes with objects and systems reliant on magnetism, and effectively prevents proper function. So cellphones will have no signal, compass needles won’t ever point north, and GPS devices can’t locate jack shit. Still, everything and anything is believable in a state of panic.
Going back to the supernatural, entering a place where evil is rumored to run between the trees doesn’t seem like a good way to spend my planned last moments. So what makes the notorious landmark an appealing final destination?
Forests are captivating places for contemplation, where memories are relived as you walk past each tree and into each ray of light, or listen as raindrops hit the leaves as they tumble to the ground. They are time capsules made of musty leaves, damp earth, and fragrant wood, easy to get lost and go unnoticed.
What I want when these thoughts creep is never death. It is obscurity, escape, rest. Perhaps these lost souls were looking for the same.
If you or a loved one need help, please reach out and contact your local crisis centre for help.
You are not alone.
Michelle is a wandering soul. She doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life. She hopes she’s doing something right. She is a great person to talk to; doesn’t talk much herself. If you’re nice, she’ll haunt you forever. Or until she’s bored.