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Sunday, June 26, 2011

News photo
Last resting place: An unidentified man lies dead from an apparent overdose in the Aokigahara Jukai forest. ROB GILHOOLY PHOTOS

SUNDAY TIMEOUT

Inside Japan's 'Suicide Forest'


By ROB GILHOOLY
Special to The Japan Times

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According to NPA reports, a major suicide trigger in 2010 was depression, and some 57 percent of all the suicide victims were out of work when they died. Among those, men in their 50s were most numerous, though men in their 30s and 40s has been the demographic showing the biggest percentage increase in the past few years.

News photo
Local anti-suicide patrollers out at night.

"This generation has a lot of difficulty finding permanent jobs, and instead people take on temp work that is unstable and causes great anxiety," said Yukio Saito, executive director of Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline), a volunteer telephone counseling service that last year fielded nearly 70,000 calls from people contemplating suicide.

"Callers most frequently cite mental health and family problems as the reason for contemplating suicide," Saito said. "But behind that are other issues, such as financial problems or losing their job."

Although financial worries are undoubtedly major drivers of modern-day suicide, other unique cultural and historical factors also seem to play a part.

In some countries, suicide is illegal or at least largely unacceptable on religious or other moral grounds, but in Japan there is no such stigma.

"Throughout Japanese history, suicide has never been prohibited on religious or moral grounds," said Cho. "Also, apart from on two specific occasions in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), suicide has never been declared illegal." Lifeline's Saito concurred, saying: "Suicide is quite permissible in Japanese society, something honorable that is even glorified."

The tradition of honorable suicide dates back centuries to Japan's feudal era, when samurai warriors would commit seppuku (ritual disemboweling) as a way to uphold their honor rather than fall into the hands of an enemy.

The present-day acceptance of suicide stems from this, Cho said. "Vestiges of the seppuku culture can be seen today in the way suicide is viewed as a way of taking responsibility," he observed.

Japan is also subject to suicide fads, and Seicho Matsumoto's 1961 novel "Nami no To" ("Tower of Waves") started a trend for love-vexed couples, and then jobless people, to commit suicide in the Aokigahara Jukai.

The book, which this year posts its 50th anniversary, concludes with its beautiful heroine, who is involved in a socially unacceptable relationship, heading into the forest to end her life.

In fact that suicide trend in the forest peaked in 2004, when Yamanashi prefectural police figures show 108 people killed themselves there.

In recent years, local authorities have implemented measures to try and reduce that toll, including siting security cameras at the main entrances to the forest and carrying out round-the-clock patrols.

News photo
A figure bound to a tree where someone took their own life.

At the entrances there are also signs that read: "Think carefully about your children, your family." Below them is the phone number of a volunteer group headed by lawyers specializing in debt advice, as debt is a common suicide trigger.

The signs were erected by 38-year-old Toyoki Yoshida, who himself attempted suicide due to debt. He blames Japan's money-lending system, which the government has now reformed to a degree.

"As things stood," Yoshida said, "major banks would provide loans to loan sharks at 2 percent interest, and then the lsharks would loan to people like me at 29.2 percent. But despite the reform, it's still not hard to amass crippling debts in this country."

Vigilant shopkeepers also play a role in the prevention effort. Hideo Watanabe, 64, whose lakeside cafe faces an entrance to the forest, said that he has saved around 160 people over the past 30 years.

"Most people who come to this area for pleasure do so in groups," he said. "So, if I see someone on their own, I will go and talk to them. After a few basic questions, it's usually not so difficult to tell which ones might be here on a suicide mission."

On one occasion, he said a young woman who had tried to kill herself walked past his store. "She had tried to hang herself and failed. She had part of the rope around her neck and her eyes were almost popping out of their sockets. I took her inside, made her some tea, and called an ambulance. A few kind words can go a long way."

Showzen Yamashita, a priest who conducts Buddhist rites in the forest to pray for the repose of the thousands of people who have died there over the years, agreed, adding that the lack of support networks in Japan is a main cause of the ever-increasing suicide rate.

"They have no one to talk to, no one to share the pain, the suffering," he said. "So they think, 'If I take my life I can escape this misery.' We conduct these rites in order to ponder how we might help make a world that is free of such suffering."

Rob Gilhooly's photo-story "Suicide Forest" was awarded a special prize by jury in the 2011 Days Japan International Photojournalism Awards and an honorary mention in the OnAsia International Photojournalism Awards for 2010.

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