It's been called "the perfect place to die".
The Aokigahara (also known as the "Sea of Trees") is a 35 kilometer2 forest that lies at the base of Japan's Mount Fuji. Given the volcanic rock that lines the forest's floor and the dense vegetation that prevents easy passage except through informal trails, its sinister reputation isn't hard to understand. Since the 1950s, there have been an estimated 500 suicides in the forest making it the third-most popular suicide site in the world (San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is still the champion with Toronto's Bloor Street Viaduct being the second-most popular). The suicides are so frequent in fact that, since 1970, volunteers have been taking part in a semi-annual "body hunt" to find corpses (despite rumours that some bodies have never been found in the thick forest). The volunteers mark out their search area with plastic tape that is often left behind after the search is completed. On average, there are approximately thirty suicides a year in Aokigahara although 2002 holds the record with seventy-eight suicides.
While Aokigahara'a sinister reputation dates back to medieval times (including legends of ghostly encounters with undiscovered suicides), the modern suicide epidemic began in the 1950s with the publication of a book by Japanese mystery author Seicho Matsumoto. The novel, titled Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees) featuring the suicide of one of the novel's characters. More recently, in 1993, a book titled Wataru Kanzen Jisatsu Manyuaru (the Complete Manual of the Suicide) recommended the forest as being an ideal spot for suicide. Through newspaper stories, movies, and its place in popular culture, the Aokigahara death toll continues.
Visitors to the forest are quick to notice numerous signs posted for the benefit of potential suicides. The signs feature slogans such as "A little while, please. The life is a precious gift that their parents
gave him. It does not only keep his preoccupations for you, you look
for attendance” and "Please consult the police before you decide to die!" Despite the presence of the signs, local residents say that they can always tell who is visiting the forest for its natural beauty, who is there in search of a macabre experience, and who is never planning to emerge from the forest alive. There is certainly enough to attract sightseers, especially its reputation as the most haunted site in Japan. Spiritualists claim that centuries of suicides in the forest have filled the trees themselves with "malevolent energy". Considering that compasses have a way of malfunctioning in the forest (due to the heavy iron deposits in the forest's floor), the ghostly legends seem oddly plausible.
Forestry workers at Aokigahara have a fixed routine for dealing with bodies (some in advanced states of decomposition or partially eaten by animals). The bodies are brought down to the forest station and placed in a special room reserved for corpses. The room has two beds: one for the corpse and one for a forestry worker to sleep in. According to local tradition, suicides rise as yurei (unhappy ghosts) and bodies that are left alone will cause the yurei to scream and move the body to the regular sleeping quarters. Not surprisingly, sleeping next to the corpse isn't a popular duty among the workers.
Not only has the recent economic downturn in Japan ensured a steady stream of suicides in the forest (often by despondent businessmen) but a ghoulish industry as well. While actual reports are scarce, there are lingering rumours that scavengers frequently enter the forest to steal wallets, money, and credit cards from corpses which they then sell on the black market. Director Tomoyuki Takimoto once found a wallet containing 370,000 yen ($4,066.67 U.S.) in the forest while scouting for locations for his 2004 film, Ki No Umi (Sea of Trees).
The local residents can hardly be blamed for resenting Aokigahara's sinister reputation and the tendency for suicides to spike whenever the forest is mentioned in the media. As one local police officer stated, "We want people to forget Aokigahara for a little while. Every time it’s mentioned, it starts off a chain reaction and we end up with more suicides." Takatoshi Kobayashi, mayor of the nearby village of Narusawa states that the cost of finding and recovering the bodies comes out of the budgets of the three nearest villages. "We have to pay for the bodies to be disposed. Doing so keeps us away from the work we should be doing. Suicides ruin the area’s name. We’re all for an end to the searches.” In the meantime, the local villages still pay for the interment of remains in special cemeteries reserved for Aokigahara suicides.
So what can be done to stop the rash of Aokigahara suicides? Attempts at curbing suicides at well-known sites such as the Golden Gate bridge using special barriers have had little success to date. There is no practical way to prevent people contemplating suicide from entering the forest and the warning signs seem to have no real effect either. While patrols have been set up to identify and detain anyone with a "forlorn appearance", it's questionable whether suicides can be stopped completely. The local residents seem to have little choice but to wait for the inevitable spike in suicides that occurs whenever their local forest is featured in another news story.
And the death toll continues.