Japan's harvest of death

They find the first one after less than a quarter of an hour, a few yards off one of the narrow paths, and no more than half a mile into the Aokigahara Sea of Trees. A man called Mr Miura spots it, and he is standing on the path as I arrive, telling the story to his fellow volunteers, and shaking his head, half with nervousness and half with pride. "I saw his knapsack first, and then I looked again and I noticed him," he says. "Can't have been there more than a day or two. I didn't want to look at the face." It's a perpetual twilight in the Sea of Trees, the rain is falling, and I don't much want to see the face either.

They find the first one after less than a quarter of an hour, a few yards off one of the narrow paths, and no more than half a mile into the Aokigahara Sea of Trees. A man called Mr Miura spots it, and he is standing on the path as I arrive, telling the story to his fellow volunteers, and shaking his head, half with nervousness and half with pride. "I saw his knapsack first, and then I looked again and I noticed him," he says. "Can't have been there more than a day or two. I didn't want to look at the face." It's a perpetual twilight in the Sea of Trees, the rain is falling, and I don't much want to see the face either.

I push through anyway and there, just around the corner, is Mr Miura's find. He rests on his knees, with his face and arms slumped against the ground, in an expression of anguish or supplication. His hair is close cropped and slightly grey, his shirt is clean and blue, and a long, atrocious gash runs diagonally across the right side of his neck. I wonder how old he is, and what he used to do this to himself, but I am saved from my own curiosity by the arrival of the police, who bustle everyone out of the way and set to work with cameras and body bags. In less than an hour the dead man is wrapped, sealed and wheeled on a metal trolley to the car park where they are gathering this year's harvest from the Sea of Trees. No sooner has it been unloaded into the ambulance, than the trolley is wheeled off again to collect another find, in a deeper part of the forest.

The Aokigahara Sea of Trees is a remarkable place, and in different circumstances it would be known for any number of interesting things. In a country overrun with development, it is a genuine wilderness, one of the few virgin woods left in Japan. Delicious wild mushrooms grow in its mossy cavities; looming above it is the thrilling and immaculate shape of Mount Fuji, Japan's most famous and most sacred mountain. But Japanese know Aokigahara for one reason alone, and there is nowhere else like it in the country, probably nowhere in the world. Every year, people come here in their scores with the sole aim of committing suicide. Last Friday, as they have done every year for the last three decades, a small army of police, volunteers and attendant journalists, go in to bring them out.

The annual search began in 1970, but never have there been such rich pickings as now. In the old days, the harvest remained fairly steady at around 20 bodies which were discovered by walkers or police over the course of the year, with just one or two of them being found on the day of the annual search. Then, about 10 years ago, the number began rising and, during 1994, 57 corpses were found. 1999 was a record crop, with more than 70 bodies recovered; the four found on Friday - including the man in the blue shirt - brought the tally for this year to 48.

"Even before today, we've had three in the last few days alone," says Kiyotaka Oyamada, chief of the local volunteer firemen who carry out the search. "Most of them are middle-aged, although you get a few youngsters, of course. Every now and then there's couple who go together - love suicides, as it were, but none this year. No teenagers this year, either, and for that I'm very grateful."

As you might expect, the inhabitants of the Aokigahara area have come to take a matter of fact, even an exasperated, attitude to the despair and death that their forest attracts, although even they are not immune to a certain amount of ghoulish fascination. Every taxi driver has stories about passengers whom they have taken from the station to the forest, confident that they would not be taking them back. Schoolchildren talk of white shapes that have be seen flitting around the forest at night. But the problem has become so big that, by and large, it is regarded as a tremendous nuisance. "We'd love it if you media people would write about the walks and the trees and the beauty of it all," says Mr Oyamada, looking round in despair at the three camera crews and half a dozen reporters who have gathered to document his grisly mission. "But the hikers stick to the other side of Fuji because they're worried that they'll be walking along with their kids, and suddenly there'll be a dead man hanging from a tree. I see the relatives who come here looking for their dads and sons, I see the anxiety and suffering that it causes. I want people to understand suicide as a kind of crime that creates nothing but misery."

As the problem has grown, so has the search; on Friday 300 volunteer firemen and 44 police officers gather at the car park beneath the pouring rain. The atmosphere among the volunteers, most of whom appear to be in their sixties, is both disciplined and expectant. The life of a volunteer fireman near Mount Fuji is not, I would guess, a particularly eventful one. But today, they are performing both a valuable public service and taking part in an adventure which they will be able to recount this evening to their rapt grandchildren. "Come on," says one old bloke to his mate, as the uniformed firemen start to stream into the woods. "Let's go mushroom-picking."

But the light-heartedness evaporates after a few minutes for, truly, this is a spooky forest, somewhere between the Brothers Grimm and The Blair Witch Project. The trees, both conifers and deciduous, grow tight against one another, with creepers draped around their trunks. The forest floor is a litter of fallen branches and great rotten logs, overgrown with a miniature jungle of feathery moss. This is a crepuscular place on the brightest of days; today, under the October drizzle, it is all shadows and indistinct shapes. To complicate matters further, compasses do not function correctly in the forest. "Something magnetic in the lava rocks from the volcano," says Mr Oyamada. "At least, that's what I heard."

Strewn between the paths are grubby scraps of tape and string which long-departed walkers have trailed behind them, like Theseus unwinding his ball of thread in the labyrinth of the Minotaur. To get lost in these woods is to be very lost indeed. One of the bodies recovered on Friday was nothing more than a collection of bones, scattered by animals over yards of forest. "The jaw bone was 50 yards away from the skull," says one of the searchers. It must have been there for years." Those who come here to die know that, in the Sea of Trees, there is a very good chance that they will never be fished out.

Nailed to a tree is a box containing handbills left here by the local police. "Just a moment please!" they beseech. "Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Don't keep your worries to yourself - please seek counselling." The police have a van which prowls around the woods, constantly on the look out for suicides - according to their figures, 48 people have been saved from carrying through their intentions. "We sometimes get letters saying, 'Thank you for saving me. Now I am doing my best to live,'" says Minoru Kagami, the local police chief.

Most of those who succeed in killing themselves here do so by hanging, although some take pills and booze and, during the winter, there are those who simply lie down in the snow. Cutting a vein, as the man I saw appears to have done, is rare - and in such cases there is always the faint possibility of foul play. If you could get it in and out without being spotted, it would be hard to imagine a better place to dispose of a murdered body.

Why here, apart from the practical reason that is a very easy place to disappear? The answer goes a long way back. In the 19th century, feudal Japan suffered bitter famines; Aokigahara was one of many places where poor families used to come and dispose of infant and elderly mouths which they couldn't feed by the simple means of leaving them out in the open to die. A writer named Seicho Matsumoto published a famous novel, dramatised on television, called The Pagoda of the Waves, in which a character comes to die in Aokigahara. More recently, a notorious book called The Suicide Manual, which achieved alarmingly high sales a few years ago, recommended it as the perfect place to end it all. In the car park, Kyomyo Fukui, a Buddhist monk with saffron robes and a beautifully nobbly, shaven head, provides another explanation.

"The spirits are calling people here to kill themselves, the spirits of the people who have committed suicide before," he says. He and 50 monks from his temple have come here for the first time this year to construct a temporary altar in the car park and pray for the repose of the troubled spirits of Aokigahara. "The spirits draw the unhappy people here," he says. "Prayers bring them peace, and send them home rather than doing mischief. That's why we're here." And here, on the slopes of Mount Fuji, it is easy to believe him.

For as long as recorded history, the area has been dotted with various places of worship, both conventional and unorthodox. Aum Shinri Kyo, the crazed cult that released nerve gas on the Tokyo subway, built its headquarters close to here. The great mountain is itself a giant deity of the indigenous Shinto cult; in the whole of Japan, there is absolutely nowhere that is more symbolically Japanese than Mount Fuji. And nothing is more symptomatic of Japan's present state of national health than suicide.

Finland and Hungary, it is true, have higher suicide rates, but of the major industrialised countries, and of all the countries of in Asia, no population is more prone to self-destruction than the Japanese. In 1998, the annual number exceeded 30,000 for the first time ever; last year it rose again to 33,048.

More than 12,000 children every year lose a parent to suicide; 25,500 of the victims are man, many of them in middle age. The profile of the victims themselves, and the timing of the suicide boom, corresponds with those of Japan's economic crisis, which began in the early 1990s and which has affected most of all the middle-aged and the middle-ranking whose corporations, small businesses and investments have been stricken by restructuring, bankruptcy and collapse.

Railway stations in Tokyo have taken to placing mirrors along platforms - the idea is that the sight of his own reflection will prompt the would-be suicide to think again, pause, and save the transport companies a fortune in delays and clean up costs. The ministries of Labour and Health and Welfare have asked for £2.3m to be put aside for measures to combat suicide. But everyone knows that the only reliable way to reduce the suicide rate is an economic recovery - and that even in boom times, the number of Japanese people who can find no alternative to taking their own lives is higher than any comparable country. Until then they will continue to converge on the beautiful cone of Mount Fuji, and a lonely, twilit death in the Sea of Trees.

* A documentary about suicide in Japan, directed by Richard Alwyn, will be shown later this year as part of Channel 4's Japan season

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