Destination Aokigahara Forest – For Japanese Not Wanting to Live Anymore

by Gopalan on  March 21, 2009 at 1:04 PM Mental Health News   - G J E 4
 Destination Aokigahara Forest – For Japanese Not Wanting to Live Anymore
Japan is already known for its relatively high suicide rates. Now driven to despair by the current economic downturn, more persons are ending their lives. And more and more of them seem to be drawn to the Aokigahara Forest, the Sea of Trees, that lies at the base of Mount Fuji.

The dense forest and its rugged inaccessibility has also attracted the adventuring of thrill seekers. But its fame rests on its being the favourite destination of those in despair. It is considered the world's second most popular suicide location after San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Since the 1950s, more than 500 people have lost their lives in the forest, mostly suicides, with approximately 30 suicides counted yearly. The number is increasing now.

Most of those who succeed in killing themselves here do so by hanging, although some take pills and booze and, during the winter, there are those who simply lie down in the snow.

But some survive, thanks to some volunteers. Like Taro, a 46-year-old man fired from his job at an iron manufacturing company, and who made it to Aokigahara, now dubbed the suicide forest. After losing himself in the wilderness, he slashed his wrists, but the cut wasn't enough to kill him quickly.

He collapsed after days and lay in the bushes, nearly dead from dehydration, starvation and frostbite. He would lose his toes on his right foot from the frostbite. But he didn't lose his life, because a hiker stumbled upon his nearly dead body and raised the alarm.

One year after his suicide attempt, Taro is volunteering with the credit counseling agency that helped him get back on his feet. He's still living in a shelter and looking for a job. He's ashamed, he said, that he still thinks about suicide.

"I try not to think about it, but I can't say never. For now, the will to live is stronger."

Suicides have been a long tradition in this Asian nation. In the 19th century, feudal Japan suffered bitter famines; Aokigahara was one of many places where poor families used to come and dispose of infant and elderly mouths which they couldn't feed by the simple means of leaving them out in the open to die. A writer named Seicho Matsumoto published a famous novel, dramatised on television, called The Pagoda of the Waves, in which a character comes to die in Aokigahara. More recently, a notorious book called The Suicide Manual, which achieved alarmingly high sales a few years ago, recommended it as the perfect place to end it all. In the car park, Kyomyo Fukui, a Buddhist monk with saffron robes and a beautifully nobbly, shaven head, provides another explanation.

"The spirits are calling people here to kill themselves, the spirits of the people who have committed suicide before," he says. He and 50 monks from his temple have come here for the first time this year to construct a temporary altar in the car park and pray for the repose of the troubled spirits of Aokigahara. "The spirits draw the unhappy people here," he says. "Prayers bring them peace, and send them home rather than doing mischief. That's why we're here."

Offering a more mundane explanation, Toyoki Yoshida, a suicide and credit counselor, told CNN, "Unemployment is leading to this.

"Society and the government need to establish immediate countermeasures to prevent suicides. There should be more places where they can come and seek help."

Yoshida and his fellow volunteer, Norio Sawaguchi, posted signs in Aokigahara Forest urging suicidal visitors to call their organization, a credit counseling service. Both men say Japanese society too often turns a cold shoulder to the unemployed and bankrupt, and breeds a culture where suicide is still seen as an honorable option.

In 1998, the annual number exceeded 30,000 for the first time ever; last year it rose again to 33,048.

More than 12,000 children every year lose a parent to suicide; 25,500 of the victims are man, many of them in middle age. The profile of the victims themselves, and the timing of the suicide boom, corresponds with those of Japan's economic crisis, which began in the early 1990s and which has affected most of all the middle-aged and the middle-ranking whose corporations, small businesses and investments have been stricken by restructuring, bankruptcy and collapse.

In 1998, the annual number exceeded 30,000 for the first time ever; last year it rose again to 33,048.

The Japanese government said suicide rates are a priority and pledged to cut the number of suicides by more than 20 percent by 2016. It plans to improve suicide awareness in schools and workplaces. But officials fear the toll will rise with unemployment and bankruptcies, matching suicide spikes in earlier tough economic times.

Railway stations in Tokyo have taken to placing mirrors along platforms - the idea is that the sight of his own reflection will prompt the would-be suicide to think again, pause, and save the transport companies a fortune in delays and clean up costs. The ministries of Labour and Health and Welfare have asked for £2.3m to be put aside for measures to combat suicide.

Local authorities, saying they are the last resort to stop people from killing themselves in the forest, have posted security cameras at the entrances of the Aokigahara forest.

The goal, said Imasa Watanabe of the Yamanashi Prefectural Government is to track the people who walk into the forest. Watanabe fears more suicidal visitors will arrive in the coming weeks.

"Especially in March, the end of the fiscal year, more suicidal people will come here because of the bad economy," he said. "It's my dream to stop suicides in this forest, but to be honest, it would be difficult to prevent all the cases here."

A documentary about suicide in Japan, directed by Richard Alwyn, will be shown later this year as part of Channel 4's Japan season.

Source: Medindia

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