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Aokigaraha

Nearly 125 years have passed since Oscar Wilde, in his essay The Decay of Lying suggested

that, "Life imitates art more than art imitates life." It's a fair point but logic can burst it at

the seams with ridiculous ease. The subject here shows why.

 

The eleventh James Bond novel, 'You Only Live Twice' was published in Great Britain on

the 26th March 1964. The reading public eagerly awaited it and it soon sold out. Just as an

aside, it was also the last of Ian Fleming's books to be published during his lifetime.

 

In 'You Only Live Twice', a jaded Bond, devastated by the cold-blooded murder of his wife

Tracy, is sent to Japan on a do-or-die mission. The head of the Japanese Secret Service,

Tiger Tanaka, wants James Bond to kill a man who, together with his wife, has bought an old

castle and surrounded it with a 'Garden of Death'. Poisonous plants, venomous snakes and

peckish piranha occupy this garden, and Japan's suicides flock there to take their own lives. It

naturally turns out that 'Doctor Guntram Shatterhand' is none other than Ernsta Stavro

Blofeld, accompanied by his wife, the evil Irma Bunt. Bond's established nemeses, who

killed Tracy Bond on her wedding day, obviously get their comeuppance.


This begs a question: from where did Fleming get the idea of a suicides' paradise? Four

years earlier, in 1960, Japanese novelist Seichō Matsumoto released his novel, 'Kuroi

Kaiju' (Black Sea of Trees). The imagination isn't too severely stretched by the notion that

Ian Fleming might have read this book and been inspired by its content.


In 'Kuroi Kaiju', a pair of lovers carries out a suicide pact in a forest at the foot of Mount

Fuji. This leads to the particular forest's becoming a sanctuary for the suicidal. So where did

Matsumoto get his ideas? Here, the plot thickens.


Art, Life or Both?


The distinction between these two works of fiction is that unlike Fleming's Garden of Death,

the forest in Matsumoto's book was real. It still is. However, many believe that the 'Black

Sea of Trees' became a prime suicide spot because the book had made it so. According to

some, copies of Kuroi Kaiju have been found in the forest, near the remains of people who

have committed suicide. Therefore, Life imitates Art.


Or does it? In fact, the forest in question has been associated with death for many years.

The Japanese have a custom called ubasute ( a.k.a. obasute or oyasute). Literally meaning,

'Abandoning an old woman', ubasute is reputed to have gone for time immemorial, up to

as recently as the 19th Century.


In this practice, an aged, crippled or sick relative would be taken to a remote, isolated place.

There, he or she would be left to the mercy of providence, probably to be carried

off by lack of food and water, and exposure. Though not a particularly common practice,

ubasute was more frequently exercised in periods of famine or drought.


Ubasute has earned a place in Japanese folklore. Legends, sagas and poems involving it are

plentiful. It is also said that the ghosts of those left to perish haunt the places where ubasute

was carried out. These ghosts are believed to be less than content with their fate. In

Japanese, they are called the Yūrei. The name means 'angry spirits.'


This clearly points to Art's imitating Life, in direct contrast to the opinion of Oscar Wilde. Or

is Art imitating Death? It's an arguable point.

 

                                                 fuji

 

It's in the trees…

Around 60 miles south west of Tokyo, Aokigahara Forest stands at the foot of Mount Fuji,

the mountain itself being a spiritual location and a place of pilgrimage. The name

'Aokigahara' translates into English as 'plain green trees'; the forest covers an area of some 14

square miles (35 sq. km.).

 

aoki

 

Perhaps appropriately, Aokigahara is a forbidding place. Its rocky terrain is strewn with

hidden caves. The tree coverage is so dense that even the noonday sun struggles to

penetrate the forest canopy. The irregular, fractured forest floor is covered with gnarled,

tormented vines. It is cold, and with an almost complete lack of wildlife, it is strangely quiet.

Birdsong is a rarity there.

 

                                                           aoki2

 

The density of the vegetation is such that sound cannot travel far in the forest. The area's

underlying volcanic soil is rich in iron. This, it is said, is capable of preventing mobile phones, GPS units

and even compasses from working. The forest's supposed ability to trap visitors may be the

stuff of legend but it can't do anything other than add force to the belief it has brought about.

And on the way into Aokigahara Forest, you'll be faced with signs, in great numbers.


'Please Reconsider!', they shout in Japanese and English, 'Please Consult the Police before

you Decide to Die!' They evidently have minimal effect on those determined to end it all in

the forest.

 

Grim Statistics

Nineteenth-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) is thought to have said,

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." He meant that even a

feeble argument can be reinforced with the intelligent use of numbers.

The statistics concerning Aokigahara may vary but they are made no less forceful…

 

Confirmed suicides since the 1950s          Over 500
Suicides per year up to 1998                     Approx 100
Bodies found in 1998                                  74
Bodies found in 2002                                 78
Bodies found in 2003                                 100
Bodies found in 2004                                 108
Suicide attempts in 2010                          247
Bodies found in this year                           54

 

After the record number of bodies found in 1978 had beaten the 1974 record, the Japanese

government ceased to publish the figures. This attempt at reducing the suicide toll had

little effect, as later figures show.

 

 

skull  The suicide rate in Aokigahara is believe to increase

  throughout March, the end of the financial year in

  Japan. A 2011 study reports that drug overdoses and

  hanging are the most common means by which people

  take their own lives.

  These figures come from annual body searches carried 

  out by volunteers and the police.

 

 

Statistics or Damn Lies? Lets just say that these numbers only illustrate how many suicide victims have actually

been found.

 

foot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given the figures here, it isn't surprising to learn that Aokigahara is the favourite venue for suicide in Japan.

Worldwide, it is second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

 

Malleable Legend versus Hard Evidence

 

The practice of ubasute, that of leaving the sick, crippled or aged to die, is said to have

created many Yūrei, or angry spirits, in Aokigahara. It is believed that the forest is the most

haunted spot in Japan. The troubled spirits howl with anguish. Visitors have reported seeing

vague, white forms wafting around the trees. Japanese spiritualists share the opinion that

the restless dead infest the soil and the trees, lending Aokigahara an evil energy all its own.

Aokigahara Forest is hardly a tourist attraction, although it has a specified forest trail which

visitors are advised to follow because, if they become lost, the authorities might well be

unable to find them.

 

 

tent  In the forest, there's every

  chance of coming across the

  pitiful remains of some poor,

  tortured soul for whom life  

  became too much. Theories

  abound concerning terminal

  illness, clinical depression,

  broken dreams and shattered

  hopes. But whatever the reason

  for a suicide might have been,

 perhaps the victim is at peace.

What remains is merely the marker of a soul. Sadly, it isn't unknown for corpses to be looted for valuables…this

has been going on for some time.

 

Final Offices

 

Reading these words and studying the pictures here, it is tempting to believe that

Aokigahara Forest is peopled by the dead and visited only by the disrespectful, for looting or

sightseeing. But the forest has a staff of workers, who, among other tasks, perform a final

service for the dead.

 

                      hang 1   

 

   hang 2

 

Moving about in the forest, the workers may happen upon bodies in any state of

decomposition, from skeletal remains to the relatively recently deceased. Lying on the

ground or hanging from trees, the bodies may have been compromised by the activity of

insects or of the few wild creatures in the area. Having found such a body, the forest

workers take it to a special cabin set aside for the corpses of suicides.

 

                    shoes

 

The Japanese belief is that if a corpse is left alone overnight, its spirit will never find rest.

The ghost of the suicide will (it is said) wail and scream if left unaccompanied; the body will

rise and seek company. So, the workers play 'Janken', which we know as rock-

paper-scissors, to determine who will rest cheek-by-jowl as it were, with the corpse.

 

                          hang 3

 

                                      

 

decomp

 

                                             fuji2

 


 

 

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