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Aokigahara: Forest of Ghosts and Death

By Chris Capps    11/6/10

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A sign warning visitors to seek help.
The legend of Aokigahara's army of ghosts is still told to ward off locals brave enough to venture within it.  The mysterious forest even has signs posted at the borders of trails there warning off visitors.  In 2002, 78 people died in the forest.  In 2003 this number reached 100.  Every year police assemble groups to find the bodies of those who have wandered into this serene and haunting place.  The strangest part?  Almost all of those found dead have committed suicide.

It's largely unknown why Aokigahara has such a draw for those who are suicidal, but the government has acknowledged the mystery by posting signs warning those who are about to enter to seek help and stay away if they are suicidal.

Still, the warning signs have done little to stem the tide of self inflicted violence within the forest.  As it's unclear the cultural reason visitors are drawn to the forest, the mystery only deepens when we consider how statistically disproportionate the forest's deaths are for the population around it.

New York is a city considered to have a devastatingly high suicide rate with 7.6 dying by their own hands out of every 100,000 in 2005 according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  The explanation is partially (although only partially) explainable by the unusually high suicide rate in Japan, led by Tokyo which has one of the highest in the world.  Tokyo's suicide rate in 2004 was recorded by the WHO as 49 per 100,000.  But if we take a look at these statistics for a moment to truly draw out how shockingly high Aokigahara's statistics are, the mystery only deepens.  If we were to take the 78 dead in 2002 and apply it to the population in Aokigahara, the first thing we would notice is that there is virtually no one living in the forest.  And most of those living in nearby towns and villages refuse to enter it.

There are two possible explanations to this macabre and unusual phenomenon.  The first is the most conventional, although it leaves much unanswered.  If the cultural understanding of the haunted woods is that it is a place people go when they die, then it's possible the citizens are just following suit.  But where did the legend come from?  Why was it used in ancient times as a ubasute?  An ubasute is a place the elderly were sent in the ancient history of the region to die after they believed their time was up.  It seems even in those times the mysterious draw of the forest compelled people for miles around to visit and end their lives.

The other explanation is that there is something about the place itself.  Could it be the misery of those who had gone before cascading into an overwhelming call for those feeling there is no alternative?  Could it be something in the environment itself that we do not yet understand?

There is perhaps one final thing to be noted about Aokigahara's mysteries.  Very little exists in the forest in the way of wildlife.  In fact, the forest has a reputation as being eerily silent as vast regions are completely void of wildlife aside from the ever present trees.  And due to its geography the wind is said to hardly ever blow there.  The silence, visitors say, is overwhelming.  Even those who do not know of its legend say Aokigahara feels like a place of death.

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