At the base of Mount Fuji lies a forest which has all the gothic beauty of a medieval fairy tale. The trees are gnarly and twisted; their branches interlock like witches’ fingers, stretching in a tightly-knit canopy which locks out both light and sound.
Walking along the floor of the forest is a beautiful but eerie experience; you move in a perpetual twilight, a place which is forever on the verge of night. Every now and then, the shadows are interrupted by a flicker of color; here and there a thin, bright ribbons trail and shimmer from one tree to the next. Follow one of these, and it might peter away into the stillness … but then again, it could lead you further and deeper still, toward something else entirely, to one of the forms which are so regularly found in this place; a body hung slack and dangling from one of the skeletal branches above.
For you are in Aokigahara — and Aokigahara is a place where people come to end their lives. It is estimated that one hundred people die here each year. The ribbons are a precaution; if the person who is contemplating suicide changes their mind at the last moment, he or she will be able to find their way back to the world of the living once more. Ribbons are required because compasses simply don’t function in this place. Something about the iron concentration in the ground interferes with them — though inevitably, such naturalistic explanation has been superseded by all types of supernatural ones; the forest is so spooky and still, it is hard not to infer the ghostly presence of all the souls that have perished here.
Of course, it is not only Aokigahara which has become synonymous with suicide. Suicide looms large in the national reputation more generally, from the Samurai warrior to the Kamikaze pilot. Today, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates of any country, tripling that of the UK and doubling that of the US. But the reasons as to why this might be remain as enigmatic and elusive as the shadows which flicker and dance in the ‘Suicide Forest’ itself.
The phenomenon of ‘Karoshi’ (which literally translates as death from overwork) is intimately related to that of suicide. The concept itself seems to have gained real purchase in Japanese cultural life, from the spate of law-suits which have been opened up by the bereaved families of those extinguished prematurely by crushing work schedules, to the more macabre event of ‘Karoshi’ computer gaming — where the goal is to work your on-screen digital avatar toward a fantasy expiration.
Government figures suggest that out of 2,207 work-related suicides in 2007, the underlying motivation for 672 of them was overwork, while an article for RTT news suggests that in 2008 health problems, including work related depression, accounted for 47% of suicides in Japan. Of course, the latter statistic is also premised on the burgeoning crest of a global economic crisis, but that by no means negates the validity of what has been said — if anything it serves to bolster it. In fact, a Japanese businessman is more likely to take his life than his Western counterpart because the stifling claustrophobia, which the external demands of capitalist crisis creates, is often supplemented by an acute inward awareness of ‘shafu’ — of ‘company spirit’ — and the feeling that, despite his best efforts, he has in some way betrayed it.
But there is a flip side to the coin. Anthropologist Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, writing about internet suicide pacts in Japan (where people arrange online to meet up and commit suicide together in a group) argues that these new forms of suicidal behaviour should be understood in terms of the Japanese concept — ‘ikigai’ — which roughly translates as ‘purpose.’ With the destabilization of the economy, and the loss of those communal, ideological networks which had more profoundly integrated previous generations with their labor practices — younger people today more and more experience loss of ‘purpose’ which is the product of an increasingly uncertain future.
The more modern modes of suicide are, therefore, an expression of alienation; if anything, the act of killing oneself in a group allows the alienated individual to experience a single, ultimate act of ‘purpose’ through a level of social integration which the uncertainty and fragmentation of modern existence has denied them. If the excess of internalized ‘shafu’ provides an impetus toward suicide, its lack can also provide a singular drive toward self-immolation. Among the new generation in Japan today, it is the depth and intensity of isolation, of alienation, which more and more allows them to heed the Suicide Forest’s siren calls.