Why is Japan's Aokigahara Forest Called the 'Suicide Forest'?

By: Dave Roos  | 
Aokigahara forest  pathway, Japan
A pathway leads through Aokigahara Forest, in Fujikawaguchiko, Japan, 2018. In recent years, the dense forest has become known as a place where people go to commit suicide. Carl Court/Getty Images

Warning: the following article includes frank discussions of suicide. If you or somebody you love is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

In the year 864, Mount Fuji experienced a violent, six-month eruption that buried entire villages and left behind a massive field of hardened lava. Over the past 1,000 years, a tangled forest grew on that lava field or forest floor, in the shadow of the snow-capped volcano. Its official name is Aokigahara, but most Japanese call it jukai, which means "sea of trees."


Aokigahara is a popular hiking destination just a couple of hours from Tokyo in the rural Yamanashi prefecture. But not everybody comes here for the fresh air and sweeping views. For decades, Aokigahara has served as a darker kind of destination. For lost souls who see no other way out, Aokigahara is known as the suicide forest.

According to the Yamanashi government, there were more than 100 suicides committed in Aokigahara forest between 2013 and 2015 alone, CNN reported. The victims, whose remains are found deep in the sea of trees, often travel from far away to join countless others who have ended their lives in these mist-shrouded woods. The Japanese government no longer gives statistics on suicides in Aokigahara in an effort to deter people from coming there to do it.

But how did this scenic and serene forest at the base of Mount Fuji become so intimately associated with suicide? We reached out to Lindsay Nelson, a political science professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, who writes about Japanese horror films, including a chapter on the suicide forest in her book, "Circulating Fear: Japanese Horror, Fractured Realities, and New Media."


Suicide as a Sacred Ritual

strings on trees in Aokigahara forest
People often tie strings or other markers on trees there, as the forest is very dense. This helps them find their way back out, in case they change their minds about taking their own lives, or just don't want to get lost while hiking. Carl Court/Getty Images

"There are conflicting stories as to when Aokigahara's association with suicide began," says Nelson, but one of them dates back centuries to a macabre practice by certain sects of Buddhist monks.

Mount Fuji, like other mountains in Japan, is considered a sacred space, as are the forests that surround them. For more than 1,000 years, ascetic Buddhist monks have retreated to forests to practice extreme forms of self-denial and meditation that ended in death.


According to one tradition, monks would meditate in the forest for 1,000 days, subsisting on nothing more than leaves and bark. Then they would be "buried alive" to continue meditating in an underground crypt. The ultimate goal was to transform the body, while still alive, into a sokushinbutsu, a type of mummy. The remains of 18 of these "self-mummified" monks are still displayed in parts of Japan (although scientists believe they actually were mummified after their deaths).

Perhaps this ancient form of ritual suicide provided a model for Japanese people looking to escape their modern lives by disappearing into the woods? Or perhaps there's a more direct connection between Aokigahara and suicide.


Aokigahara Forest in the Media

In 1960, the Japanese author Seicho Matsumoto published a short story called "Tower of Waves." The plot centers on a pair of star-crossed lovers who are kept apart by forces beyond their control.

"It's a melodrama that's been turned into countless movies in Japan," says Nelson. "In the final scene, the young woman writes a farewell letter to her lover, grabs a bottle of pills and walks into Aokigahara forest to die."


Matsumoto's story tapped into a longstanding fascination in the Japanese media with couples and distraught lovers committing suicide, adds Nelson. Back in the 1920s, a young woman named Kiyoko threw herself into the fiery crater of Mount Mihara after she fell in love with a female classmate, which was forbidden. Hundreds of desperately romantic young Japanese people followed in Kiyoko's footsteps. (In 1935, Time magazine wrote a less-than-sensitive article about the phenomenon.)

Clearly, Matsumoto's book played a role in putting Aokigahara "on the map" of popular suicide destinations in Japan, but the book that really made the "suicide forest" famous was published in the 1990s.


'The Perfect Place to Die'

"The Complete Suicide Manual" is exactly what it sounds like. Written by Wataru Tsurumi and published (in Japanese only) in 1993, this 198-page book is a matter-of-fact guide to ending one's life. Tsurumi discusses the merits and drawbacks of every form of suicide — hanging, jumping, carbon monoxide, sleeping pills, etc. — and how to ensure a "successful" outcome.

"Obviously the book is very controversial," says Nelson, "and it includes a section on Aokigahara forest, describing it as 'the perfect place to die.'"


The suicide manual paints a romantic picture of Aokigahara forest as the ideal place to simply disappear. No loved one has to discover your body. You just go on a trip and never come home. Tsurumi included detailed instructions about which bus route to take and how to avoid drawing suspicion from nosy park workers.

"They say that a lot of bodies have been found with copies of the manual," says Nelson.

The other thing that cemented the forest's reputation outside of Japan was a video by a YouTuber named Logan Paul which showed a body hanging from a tree in the forest, and was widely condemned for its insensitivity. Most of the suicides in the forest are by hanging.


How Suicide Is Viewed in Japan

Kyochi Watanabe plays his guitar at the entrance of Aokigahara  Forest
Japanese musician Kyochi Watanabe plays his guitar at the entrance of Aokigahara forest in 2018. For years, Watanabe has been using music to try and get people coming to Japan's "Suicide Forest" to take their lives to change their minds. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images

Westerners have a skewed perception of suicide in Japan. They tend to think of stoic samurai performing ritual seppuku to save their honor or of World War II kamikaze pilots crashing their planes into enemy ships.

While there isn't a religious stigma around suicide as there is in a Judeo-Christian culture like the United States, says Nelson, suicide in Japan "is still treated as a tragedy, and people are still horrified by the suicides in Aokigahara."


Still, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Suicides rose sharply in 1998 with more than 32,000 deaths that year from suicide. The skyrocketing suicide rates of the 1990s were blamed on the country's economic woes and peaked in 2003 with 34,427 deaths attributed to suicide. Since then, says Nelson, suicide rates have tended to rise and fall in step with the economy.

For a long time, Japanese society viewed suicide as a personal problem, not a public health issue, but that's changed. The Japanese government has invested in public service messaging about suicide prevention and crisis hotlines. The Yamanashi prefecture has trained employees and volunteers to spot the signs of troubled visitors to Aokigahara, and there are security cameras and prominent messages posted at the entrance to the park. The signs read in Japanese:

"Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Please think about your parents, siblings and children. Don't keep it to yourself. Talk about your troubles."

A phone number for a suicide helpline is also included.


Inside the 'Suicide Forest'

Aokigahara forest
Despite its forbidding appearance, Aokigahara forest is a popular and scenic place to hike or explore nature. dowraik/Shutterstock

Nelson visited Aokigahara forest a few years ago while researching her book on Japanese horror movies, which frequently use the "suicide forest" as a dark and foreboding setting (the most recent example is the 2021 horror film "Suicide Forest Village" from the makers of "The Grudge"). Nelson had also seen plenty of YouTube videos that depicted Aokigahara as a haunted forest full of abandoned possessions and dead bodies behind every tree.

"It was just beautiful," says Nelson. "When you read about Aokigahara in English-language blogs or media, they play up how 'creepy' it is — abandoned cars, the warning signs, etc. But it's just a really scenic hiking spot."


Indeed, the forest has several hiking and walking trails, as well as two deep lava caves — the wind cave and the ice cave — that visitors like to explore. /\r\n/