IT WORRIES the volunteer patroller at one of the entrances to Aokigahara forest that the white car with the Osaka number plates has now been there, empty, for five days. This forest of moss-clad trees covers 30 square kilometres (12 square miles) of a lava plateau near the foot of Mount Fuji. As a place to commit suicide, it is said to be second in popularity only to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The car’s owner, the patroller says, is probably already dead somewhere deep inside the forest. His job is to try to spot and turn back those who may be contemplating suicide.
Folklore holds that the forest was once a site for ubasute, the (possibly apocryphal) practice of carrying the old or infirm to a remote place and leaving them to die, so that they would not be a burden to their families. A 1960 novel by Seicho Matsumoto popularised Aokigahara as a site for suicides, after the heroine took her own life there. When suicides in Japan rose steeply as the country’s financial bubble burst after 1989, several dozen people a year were killing themselves in Aokigahara, mainly by hanging. Signs stand next to the paths, telling passers-by that their lives are precious, a gift from their parents. The number of a suicide hotline is displayed below. Yet much internet chatter talks of the forest as a site for suicides, and its vastness is a lure to many contemplating death. Mobile-phone reception is poor. The volcanic deposits also wreak havoc with compasses; those with second thoughts might struggle to retrace their steps.
Last year over 23,000 people ended their own lives in Japan. The good news is that the number has fallen for six years in a row—a trend elsewhere, too (see chart). Part of the reason for the decline of Japanese suicides is economic: with business and personal insolvencies at a relative low, fewer people are losing their jobs or going bankrupt—a common motivation for Japanese suicides, along with worries about health. But prevention has also improved. Nearly a decade ago the government adopted policies to stop suicides. They include classes at schools, extra municipal staff trained in suicide-prevention, and better training in mental health among medical staff. Those expressing suicidal urges are now more likely to receive attention—though mental illness still has a powerful stigma attached to it in Japan.
Most preventive measures are directed at middle-aged men, who are most at risk. Yet the rate at which younger adults kill themselves has not fallen by as much as for older folk—indeed, suicide is the leading cause of death for 15- to 40-year-olds. It is harder to deal with a pervading dejection about the future that prompts many young Japanese to kill themselves than with the practical issues—eg, financial straits—that can push middle-aged people over the edge, says Yasuyuki Shimizu of Life Link, an NGO.
Meanwhile, Aokigahara continues to swallow its victims. That takes a mental toll on locals too. Recently, the same patrolman wrestled a young man to the ground to stop him vanishing inside. Such incidents haunt him, and he wants talk about them. But the police have told him not to, for fear of bringing more people looking for a stillness deeper even than the silence of the forest.