Sunday, January 2, 2011

This Mortal Coil: Suicide Forest

In Japan. there is a place where large numbers of people go to commit suicide. It known by two names: Aokigahara (official name) and Jukai (popular name). Aokigahara means green tree wilderness and Jukai means sea of trees. It is also called the tower of waves because, from the summit of Mount Fuji, it is said to resemble a wavering tower when the trees of the forest are buffeted by winds.

This Mortal Coil - Series

This mortal coil is an ongoing series devoted to the big questions: Why do we exist and how does one live a good life in the context of a complex society? Other installments in this series include:

This Mortal Coil: Shangri-La & the 2nd Death


Below is a road map from Aokigahara (Point A) to Mount Fuji (Point B):(If you use the minus button, you will note how close it is to Tokyo.)

View Larger Map

Treasure Hunt

As a brief aside, when JohnQuincy lived in Tokyo, he would often escape the city by going on day hikes in the surrounding mountains. It started when I stumbled across this amazing book: Day Walks Near Tokyo by Gary DA Walters

It gives suggested hikes by season How cool is that? Beach hikes in the Summer. Mountain Meadows with hillsides full of blooming wild cherry and plum trees in the Spring.Best of all are magical directions where you find your way from place to place using landmarks some as small as unusual rocks or trees.. For a westerner used to right, left, east, west, miles; it made the whole experience more like a treasure hunt than a hike. Below is a sample:

Edo (Tokyo) Maze

Japanese rarely give directions the way we do by compass headings. Instead, they tend to guide you from landmark to landmark. It makes sense when you consider that most street grids are mazes and you usually can never really see that far ahead of you with all the buildings, hills, dells and trees. I pride myself on my sense of direction yet was forced to finally buy a mini compass to attach to my bicycle handle bars to keep myself from getting hopelessly lost during my jaunts around town.

Into the Wild

Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad; when the journey's over
There'll be time enough for sleep

-from Reveille, A.E. Housman

What causes a foreigner to journey into the wilderness with a somewhat hazy guidebook way too late in the day during bad weather? Stupidity would be an easy explanation. My rationalization was a mysterious urge to see an ancient wooden temple in the middle of a dense cedar forest. Perhaps a better explanation is the overwhelming American urge to take a journey when things get you down. It worked for Huckleberry Finn and Jack Kerouac. Why not me? Preceding my journey, a serious case of depression had gripped me due to long work hours and the sheer density of Tokyo. To make a long story short. I ended up getting hopelessly lost for quite a few hours in a rain storm, lost my footing on a steep slope and tumbled head over heels down a steep clay hillside straight into the back of a temple kilometers from the wooden one that had sparked my journey. After washing my clay fouled clothes in a rain barrel, I managed to wander back to a train line in the late evening and get back home. The man that stumbled blindly into the wilderness returned home a changed person.


Born of Clay

'Blood to blood
I join,
blood to bone
I form
an original thing,
its name is MAN,
aboriginal man
is mine in making.
-Enuma Elish, Babylonian Creation Myth

Since pre-history clay has often been associated with genesis, the birth of man. While some bibles translate it as dust or earth, there is a strong argument in favor of clay:


"According to the Bible, Adam was the first man. His name, which means "man" in Hebrew, is probably derived from the Hebrew word for "earth." The first three chapters of Genesis relate that God created Adam from dust, breathed life into him, and placed him in the Garden of Eden, where he lived with his wife, Eve, until they ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The biblical account is similar to Egyptian and Mesopotamian accounts, in which the first man was made from clay, infused with life by a divine being, and placed in a paradise of delight."

JohnQuincy does not know whether God made Adam from clay or dust, he does know that after the slide down the muddy clay slope and rain barrel bath that he felt reborn.

Be Here Now

After I returned home, an obsession took hold of me sort of like the one in Close Encounters where the Richard Dreyfuss character becomes a maniac and starts recreating Devil's Tower out of everything he can find:

My obsession did not involve mashed potatoes and was less weepy, more euphoric. It centered on trying to bring a little of the beauty of the forest home to my apartment, a veritable garden of Eden in microcosm. This obsession focused on two main outlets:

1) 石付き盆栽 (IshiTuki Bonsai) Minature Rock Horticulture

Here is a good Japanese site dedicated to bonsai in general, not necessarily ishi-tsuke bonsai: Bonsai Cafe

2) Dutch (Co2 Injection for Plants) Fresh Water Aquariums Inspired by Taskashi Amano

2008 Aqua Design Amano Layout Contest Results

(Mono No Aware)

In a sense my rebirth consisted of an expanded awareness of things. In Japanese, this is called Mono No Aware.

The Japanese aesthetic is best summarized via their concept of Mono No Aware. We also have similar concepts in the West. In ancient Greece, it was associated with Pathos. In the English speaking world, it is best summarized in the below lines from the William Blake Poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

To Dust You Shall Return

If a mountainous forest can be a place of rebirth can it also not be a place of death?

Ubasuteyama (姥捨て山, grandmother throwing mountain?) was a practice formerly performed in Japan, whereby an infirm or elderly relative was carried to a mountain, or some other remote, desolate place, and left there to die, either by dehydration, starvation, or exposure. The practice was most common during times of drought and famine, and was sometimes mandated by feudal officials.
Ubasuteyama has left its mark on Japanese folklore, where it forms the basis of many legends, poems, and koans. In one Buddhist allegory, a son carries his mother up a mountain on his back. During the journey, she stretches out her arms, catching the twigs and scattering them in their wake, so that her son will be able to find the way home.

A poem commemorates the story:

In the depths of the mountains,
Who was it for the aged mother snapped
One twig after another?
Heedless of herself
She did so
For the sake of her son 

Warning: Contains graphic scenes of euthanasia of the elderly.


In ancient Japan, Aokigahara was also a place known for the practise of Ubasute. In modern Japan, it has become a mecca for suicides:

Warning: Frank examination of suicides that some may find disturbing.

Wavering Tower

In the 1960's, Aokigahara was popularized as a place to commit suicide with the publication of the book, "Nami no Tou (Wavering Tower) " by Seichō Matsumoto, which glamorized a fictional lovers suicide at this location. This was later turned into a famous TV drama that has been redone countless times over the past few decades:

Note: Sorry this is a Japanese only broadcast with no subtitles. Even if you do not understand the language, you can certainly watch a few minutes to soak in the dark atmosphere.

Towering Waves Japanese TV Drama

Leaping Into the Abyss

While not the world's most popular suicide spot, the Golden Gate Bridge Steals the top spot, Aokigahara is the only one in the top ten where people do not leap to their deaths. For a complete list, please visit the ever helpful Wikipedia: List of suicide sites

In 2006, a documentary was even made on Golden Gate Bridge leaps, The Bridge:

Warning: Graphic Images of People Attempting Suicide

Shut Ins

Even though there is no single reason why people in certain countries choose to commit suicide, there are certain causes that are more common in Japan.

Maggie Jones has done an excellent job detailing this conditon: Shutting Themselves In - NY Times

One morning when he was 15, Takeshi shut the door to his bedroom, and for the next four years he did not come out. He didn't go to school. He didn't have a job. He didn't have friends. Month after month, he spent 23 hours a day in a room no bigger than a king-size mattress, where he ate dumplings, rice and other leftovers that his mother had cooked, watched TV game shows and listened to Radiohead and Nirvana. "Anything," he said, "that was dark and sounded desperate."

Michael Zielenziger has even written a book on the link between hikikomori and suicides in Japan. He also has an excellent blog that often comments on this topic:

The Story Behind Shutting Out the Sun

Michael Zielenziger’s Blog Asia File

Otaku (おたく / オタク?) (oh-tah-kooh
The Obsessive Compulsive Hobbyist

While my antidote to the claustrophoic conditions in Japan was relatively healthy obessions with hiking, fresh water aquariums and rock bonsai; many Japanese are turning to darker cumpulsions while they shut themselves up in their rooms:

アニメ フィギュア
Animated Character Figurines

A good example of an otaku obsessive hobby is collecting/building animated character figurines, particularly erotic and robotic figures:

ホビーBlog フィギュア プラモデル アニメ ゲーム紹介

Behavioral Sink
The Maddening Crowd

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.


What causes large numbers of Japanese to shut themselves away from society and/or engage in obsessive compulsive behaviors? My guess is the sheer population density. Too put it into perspective, Japan's land mass is roughly half the size of California. A lot of it consists of sparsely populated islands strung out along the coast line of east Asia. 80% of the land mass is too mountainous to dwell leaving 20% as livable area. In short, the Japanese people, with half the population of the United States, live in an area the size of San Diego County.

As an example of how stressful high density living is, when living in Japan, I noticed that a lot of Westerners showed symptoms of anxiety and usually left fairly quickly. While they felt anxious, most could not pin point the source. It finally dawned on me one day that it was insane overcrowding. It often hit me as a crazy urge to push old ladies down stairs (No, JohnQuincy did NOT actually push old ladies down stairs). This irrational urge would strike in crowded train stations when some elderly person was in my way and moving at a snails pace. I felt like Richard Widmark in the Kiss of Death and would always have to take a few deep breaths to remind myself that it was the crowding coming over me.

Warning: Disturbing Image

Several famous sociological studies have confirmed the negative impact to society of overcrowding:

Two major theories have developed to explain the effects of density on human behavior. Wirth’s (1938) is the most common with his famous statement that size, density and heterogenity explain the effects of urban life on the human animal. The experiments done by Milgram (1970) suggest that when people are confronted with a large number of strangers in everyday life, they tend to withdraw and take less interest in the community in order to protect themselves from overload. Wolfgang (1970), among others, suggests that urban withdrawal and anomie resulting from density explains higher urban crime rates. Animal studies made famous by Calhoun (1962) show that crowding in the animal world results in what he calls the behavioral sink. Normal behavior and reproductive habits fail

The most famous of these was the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) Mice Over Crowding studies conducted by John B. Calhoun in the 1960's:
Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population

Interestingly enough, Calhoun's research was later turned into a popular children's book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien and animated movie, The Secret of NIMH (1982):

Eastern Death Cults

Oddly, even though many of the suicide victims isolate themselves before death, they are increasingly choosing to commit suicide in groups. Dangerously, certain elements in the Japanese media have chosen to glamorize this means of killing oneself. The most infamous example is the film, Suicide Club:

Warning Graphic/Disturbing Video

Here is a web site devoted to Japanese suicide cults/pacts:

..and some recent articles on the subject:

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