Ben Hills reports
In the green gloom of the forest, a stark sign stands beside the frozen trail. “Wait!” it admonishes. “Think Again! You only have one life – value it.”
It is one of a dozen warnings that have been erected by the police all through this forbidding patch of woodland on the slopes of Mount Fuji to try to stop an epidemic of suicides that has turned it into a killing field without parallel.
In the 40 years since the Jukai, as it is called – the Sea of Trees – was first brought to national attention in a television drama, no fewer than 1,400 people have come here from all over Japan to take their own lives. Several more have been brought here to be murdered.
Of all the world’s favourite suicide sites, probably only San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge comes close to this gruesome record. Since it opened in 1937, 985 people have jumped the 40 metres to their deaths in the Bay.
Japan’s forest of death is a much more macabre setting: 2,500 hectares of an almost impenetrable jungle of stunted, twisted pines and oak trees, their roots writhing across moss-coated boulders of black volcanic lava.
Not a bird sings this winter afternoon. Not a ray of sunlight pierces the darkness. Ice lies in black slabs on the paths. Frost rimes the pits and potholes in the frozen earth.
“Watch you don’t fall in,” warns my guide, a wildlife photographer named Yuzo Nakagawa. “If you do, you will die like all the others and your body may never be recovered.”
Many of the suicides, in fact, involve people deliberately getting lost and wandering around until they expire from exhaustion and exposure. Others, says Superintendent Sadao Jinguji, second-in-charge of the local Fujiyoshida police station, are more methodical.
Sitting in his office with his back to the snow-caped cone of the ancient volcano, the superintendent flips through photographs in loose-leaf binders that contain the details of last year’s suicides.
A middle-aged man in blue jeans hangs from a white rope tied to a tree. He has travelled here nearly 1,000 kilometres to end his life. His note says, “I am tired of the world.” Here are the remains of a woman, aged 59, who was depressed because of a serious illness. She left her family and journeyed from faraway Kyushu Island to cut her throat in the Jukai. It takes some weeks of detective work to identify her because she faked her identity.
Another picture shows only the upper half of an unidentified human skull.
“We try to warn people that this is not a pretty way to go,” says Supt Jinguji. “The bodies sometimes get eaten by foxes and badgers and scattered over a wide area.”
Men outnumber women four to one among the dead but there is no discernible pattern of age or occupation. They range from teenagers (who often kill themselves because of difficulties in their relationships) to middle-aged businessmen with financial problems to people in their 70s worried about their health.
Every autumn, police and several hundred local fire brigade volunteers organise a day-long sweep of the Jukai, looking for bodies which they might have missed during earlier spot searches. Last year they found 57 – the most in nearly a decade.
“The recession?” I ask the superintendent. He purses his lips: “The rise coincides with the publication of that book.”
That book is The Complete Manual of Suicide, a how-to manual by the Tokyo journalist Wataru Tsurumi which has sold a phenomenal 800,000 copies – and plunged its author into a virulent controversy.
Three of the bodies found in the Jukai last year had copies of the book by their sides – as did eight more would-be suicides the police say they saved in the nick of time. In it, Tsurumi counsels: “If you have become tired of your work and human relationships, and if you want to commit suicide without anyone ever noticing, without hesitation I recommend that you step into the Jukai. Your body will not be found. You will become a ‘missing person’ and slowly disappear from people’s memory.”
The Jukai was first popularised as a suicide spot 40 years ago when another book was made into a popular TV drama – Nami No To (Wave Tower) – by the novelist Seicho Matsumoto. It tells the story of a young woman, unhappy in love, who kills herself in the forest.
But the copycat suicides began increasing dramatically three years ago with the publication of Tsurumi’s manual. As well as advice on how to kill yourself (he says hanging is best), it gives directions to the forest from the nearest railway station, recommends several hotels for one’s last night on earth and advises on bushwalking tracks from which it is easy to get lost.
The book includes a map showing would-be suicides how to avoid areas searched by the police, and warns: “Beware of the locals. Some longtime residents say they can spot suicides just by looking at them. If you are spotted, don’t hang about – go quickly into the forest.”
Telephoned, Tsurumi said he did not feel responsible for the epidemic of deaths.
“All my book may have done is encourage them to change the venue. I don’t think suicide is a bad thing, anyway. People who want to take their own lives should be free to do so.”
Supt Jinguji is not convinced. “It is not a very nice thing to be known as the suicide capital of Japan. This is an important tourist area and local businessmen think it is bad for business. Also, my men have more important things to do than search for bodies all the time.”
Even more alarming than the suicides, the Jukai is now becoming a trendy spot to commit murder – in the past few years at least four people have been lured there and killed.
They include a young mother who strangled her three-year-old daughter, a man who killed his lover and a yakuza gangster driven there to be garrotted.
Police are still searching for the body of one of the five victims of Japan’s most notorious serial killer in recent years which is said to lie buried in the forest. The so-called “Osaka dog trainer murderer” killed his victims with poison injections and dismembered them. To try to cut down on the toll, a police/citizens’ committee has been formed to detect and deter would-be suicides. Hotels, taxis, bus drivers and people running souvenir shops have been asked to look out for warning signs such as people looking depressed, travelling on their own or without baggage.
Backed up by a telephone lifeline – and the posters – the committee claims to have stopped 66 people from killing themselves in the Jukai last year. But for hundreds of other world-weary Japanese, it remains the favourite place for life’s last exit.
The Cautious Kamikaze
Despite the image of kamikaze pilots and hara kiri, the Japanese are not the people most prone to suicide in the world. Some comparative figures (annual deaths per 100,000 population):
Hungary: 40 (60 for men)
Sri Lanka: 33
Denmark, Austria, Switzerland: 24
Former Soviet Union: 22
Australia, US: 12
United Kingdom: 8
Israel, Argentina: 7
(Source: World Health Organisation)
Pub date: Saturday 29 April 1995
Word count: 1014
Caption: Virulent controversy … The Complete Manual of Suicide, by the Tokyo journalist Wataru Tsurumi, has sold 800,000 copies.
TABLE: The cautious kamikaze? Source: World Health Organisation 1