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The Story of the Sea of Trees

James talks about the history of Japan's Suicide Forest.

By James P. Quick
On January 25, 2018

In 864 CE, Mount Fuji erupted, flooding the land with lava and blotting out the sky. Unholy devastation was unleashed from one of Japan’s Three Holy Mountains.

In the ensuing 1,154 years, a dense forest grew on the porous lava rock; so dense, in fact, that the Japanese dubbed it Jukai, or “The Sea of Trees.”

More commonly, however, it’s called Aokigahara, or the suicide forest.

In the 1800s, the forest was allegedly used to practice ubasute. This custom, if it was performed at all, was rare.

Ubasute is considered a form of geronticide – the abandonment, death, or suicide of the elderly – and literally means “abandoning an old woman.”

The density of the trees and presence of Asiatic black bears would make Aokigahara the perfect place to do this.

Ubasute has inspired many stories, including an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Half a Life", the Kaelon people refused to circumvent their geronticidal customs to allow a revered scientist, Timicin (pictured), a second chance at reigniting their dying sun. Timicin's request for asylum on the Enterprise nearly started a war.

Stories of compasses going haywire in the forest are untrue. Held at the proper height, compasses should work fine. Placed on the ground, however, the lava rock’s natural magnetism will cause magnetic compasses’ needles to move. This effect varies in strength by location and the rocks’ iron content.

Other stories tell that Aokigahara is haunted by yūrei, spirits that were kept from a peaceful rest.

It may be these same stories that made the forest the suicide hotspot that it is. Suicides seem to have picked up after the 1961 publication of “Nami no Tō” (“Tower of Waves”), a novel by Seichō Matsumoto.

By 1970, an annual search for bodies had begun, staffed by police, journalists, and volunteers.

It is the most popular place to commit suicide in Japan, with most doing so via hanging or overdosing on drugs.

Suicide numbers mount in March, which marks the end of the Japanese fiscal year. Recently, officials have decided to stop publicizing the number of people found dead in the forest. A sign out front urges suicidal visitors to reconsider and seek help.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Trained counselors are available to talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting 741741 anywhere in the United States. It is also available 24/7.

Aokigahara's tree density has earned it the nickname "The Sea of Trees".

 

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