Death Wishing & Cultural Memory: A Walk Through Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest’

This is a paper I gave at the 3rd Global Conference: Making Sense of Suicide, held in Salzburg, Austria in November 2012.

1. The lure of the abyss

When I was 13 my family lived near South Head, a sandstone headland that marks the entrance to Sydney Harbour and faces the open sea to the east. After school, I’d ride my pushbike along the coastal road, dump it in the scrub and climb across the rocky outcrop to the tall cliffs facing the ocean. It was my secret place. I was drawn to the edge, to the lure of the abyss, and although I wasn’t at all haunted by suicidal thoughts, I always had to fight an overwhelming urge to jump off. I’d lie on the warm rock, slither along on my belly until my head hung over the edge, and look down at the gull-swept cliff-face to see the ocean smashing the rocks below. On most days, the wind was fierce and brought up primeval smells from the bottom of the sea. It felt like I was hanging off the edge of the world, suspended in a liminal space between land and sea, past and present, life and death. Years later, I discovered my rock was known for jumpers. The Gap, as it’s called, is the world’s third most popular suicide destination after the Golden Gate Bridge and Aokigahara Jukai, the suicide forest at the base of Mount Fuji .[1]

What was it about The Gap that drew me to it? Other bluffs and lookouts close by were equally as beautiful. Had its 150-year history of recorded suicides left an impression on the landscape that lured me to it? Can past events—historical facts and cultural fictions—impregnate a site, marking it so deeply that those who pass through it feel its pull, creating an attraction and desire, so that the landscape itself is a lure into the abyss? Put another way: does landscape have a soul?[2]

This paper seeks to question whether the very popularity of a suicide site can influence one’s suicidality. Whether a history of voluntary death narratives creates loci memoriae—memory places that reframe a landscape or a landmark as a suicide destination, codifying and transforming a very public place into possibly the most private space of all—the environment in which someone chooses to end their life. It aims to explore the interstices between these sites of cultural memory and the lived experience of them in an attempt to understand the potency and ‘pull’ of a site impregnated with a history of suicide. By looking at the interplay between national identity, history and cultural representations of voluntary death, we can explore whether these sites are, as French historian Pierre Nora has described, ‘inscribed in the flesh of memory’.[3]

In May 2012, the Golden Gate Bridge celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. It also marked a seventy-five-year history of suicides and suicide attempts.[4] The Final Leap, written by John Bateson, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Crisis Centre, is a passionate plea for installing a protective net under the bridge.[5] Detractors argue a barrier wouldn’t prevent suicides from occurring, it would simply direct the suicidal person towards another method. Yet Bateson defends his proposition by referencing a 1978 study by Richard Seiden, a psychology professor from the University of California.[6] The study asked: ‘Will a person who is prevented from suicide in one location inexorably tend to attempt and commit suicide elsewhere?’ Seiden’s study focused on 515 would-be Golden Gate jumpers who were pulled back from the railing between 1937 and 1971. An astonishing 94% were still alive twenty-five years later.

In articles and interviews about Golden Gate (as well as Eric Steel’s extraordinary documentary The Bridge[7]), time and again survivors, and would-be jumpers, affirmed that the Golden Gate Bridge was their only option.[8] They had decided to live when ending their life there wasn’t possible, even though another as-deadly bridge was located close by and there are of course other methods one can choose.

In his monumental work Realms of Memory, Pierre Nora establishes the role of physical places and events in the creation of our collective memory and how we attach meaning to these places to constitute our sense of history.[9] Nora’s ‘sites of memory’ can be signs: symbols and rituals, such as memorials; or, places like The Gap or the Golden Gate Bridge with topographical features that serve as a magnet to attract some and repel others. This magnetic pull is historically evident in religious pilgrimages—the routes and rituals set aside for worship (Lourdes, the Wailing Wall, the Batu Caves) or, their modern-day equivalent, the war pilgrimage (trekking the Kokoda Track, visiting war memorials and Holocaust sites). It also extends to Thanatourism (dark tourism), the fascination with sites personified by death or human atrocity.

2. Japan’s suicide forest

Locals call Aokigahara Jukai ‘the suicide forest’. Located at the base of Mount Fuji, the 35-kilometre-square forest is the world’s second most popular suicide destination with an average of 100 deaths recorded annually.[10] The dense forest’s popularity as a place for ending one’s life has been attributed to Seicho Matsumoto’s 1960 novel Kuroi Jukai (Sea of Trees), which ends with a lovers’ suicide in the forest.[11] Yet, the forest has had an almost thousand-year-long association with voluntary death and is believed by many to be haunted by Yurie—the angry spirits of those who have died there.

When Mount Fuji erupted in 864AD, lava streamed down into the lake at its base, transforming the landscape with a network of chasms formed deep below the volcanic rock surface. Over centuries, giant trees have grown so densely over the otherworldly landscape that it feels like night-time, even in the mid-afternoon. Thick foliage blankets every sound, rendering the forest eerily still and deadly quiet. There’s no wind and virtually no wildlife. The ground is booby-trapped with a web of gnarly roots that threaten to grab ankles like a child’s scary fairy-tale forest, dragging the unsuspecting into the cavernous underworld below. Here, the entangled Japanese hemlocks, hinoki cypresses, beech and firs take on a different meaning—no longer a symbol of life, these trees offer a departure from it, a branch for those who opt for a noose, a mossy bed for those who choose pills.

Several of the forest’s caves are popular tourist attractions. Visitors who stray off the heavily signposted walking trail can get lost within minutes. Compasses don’t work as iron deposits in the volcanic soil are said to demagnetise them. The massive size of the forest, combined with no human habitation, means that those who enter are unlikely to be rescued or have their bodies recovered. Many suicides involve people deliberately disappearing themselves—getting lost and wandering around until they expire from exhaustion or exposure.

Coloured tape stretches from tree to tree like breadcrumbs for those who are uncertain or just curious and want to find their way out again. Scattered everywhere are signs of life—a mosaic of relics and artefacts: a deserted car in the parking lot; an umbrella neatly folded and propped against a trunk; photographs of loved ones; and, increasingly, a copy of The Complete Manual of Suicide can be found near corpses. [12]

Suicides in the forest rose with the 1993 publication of The Complete Manual of Suicide, a DIY guidebook that outlines various suicide methods. In a suicide-positive culture where ending one’s life is not stigmatised or considered unspeakable, the manual can be easily purchased in corner stores and has sold well over a million copies. Its popularity was so great that the author, Tokyo journalist Wataru Tsurumi, sold the film rights for two splatter adaptations and is himself a minor celebrity. The flimsy plotlines of the films follow police investigating a spate of group suicides and feature a how-to infomercial that graphically depicts one suicide method after another.[13] The manual chronicles many different ways to take one’s life, and claims Aokigahara Jukai is ‘the perfect place to die’. Tsurumi gives directions to isolated areas of the forest, has a map, lists hotel recommendations and gives advice on how to avoid police and curious locals. He gives explicit instructions for a painless death and proposes that hanging from a tree is a work of art—a highly aestheticised form of self-annihilation. He writes: ‘Your body will not be found. You will become a missing person and slowly disappear from people’s memory’.

Although a universal phenomenon, the incidence and response to suicide varies immensely across different cultures. National identity, history, myth and cultural narratives—films, novels, art, media stories—help to create either a socially permissive or prohibitive environment. In his 1897 study Suicide, French sociologist Emile Durkheim drew a sharp distinction between suicide in the West and what he described as ‘altruistic suicide’ in tribal cultures.[14] In Western suicidology, the self is commonly understood as singular, with the suicidal person in a stage of personal psychological anguish, while in Japanese culture the self is deeply connected to the communal. The social mechanism at work here historically valorises suicide as a worthy act if committed for the benefit of others. Identifying sub-groups of those at-risk is near impossible as it ranges from teenagers connecting online to perform netto shinju (group suicide pacts, where strangers meet to die together), through to salary men who no longer want to suffer the indignity of unemployment, or the elderly wanting to make way for the next generation. Innately hierarchical and structured by invisible networks of deference and obligation, conventional Japanese society is bound by a code where self-inflicted death is regarded as an ultimately heroic act. To quote Japanophile, Donald Richie, suicide in Japan is ‘considered as a natural, logical, and permanently available response to experience and to the exhaustion of life’s possibilities. It implies neither shame, nor trauma, nor defeat.’[15] [16] Further, to broadly reference Durkheim’s thesis that religion provides a societal permission to act, death in Shinto and Buddhist belief systems is viewed as part of the cycle of life.

In his seminal text: Voluntary Death in Japan, psychologist Maurice Pinguet examines the acceptance of suicide throughout Japanese history.[17] Pinguet illustrates how in early Japanese legends, acts of self-immolation were considered heroic. This tradition of self-sacrifice has existed within the Japanese psyche through myth and cultural texts for many centuries and expresses a distinctive way of relating to death. Pinguet examines the customs and rituals surrounding its largely universal acceptance, and shows how suicide is viewed as an ethical act, a way of restoring order to the world. The samurai code of seppuku; ubasute: the 18th century ritual of the elderly or infirm choosing death to make way for the next generation; kamikaze fighter pilots; and shinju, the romantic ideal of lovers united in death. These are just some of the voluntary death practices that have taken place throughout Japanese history.

3. Japanese cinematic memory traditions

In A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, Astrid Erll describes cultural memory as the ‘interplay of present and past on socio-cultural contexts’.[18] Such a reading of the term allows for a broad inclusion of phenomena such as invented remembering through cultural products—books, films and media stories. Through the lens of Japanese cinema we can see some of the theatrical and cinematic memory traditions that continue to inscribe a romantic acceptance of voluntary death on Japan’s national identity.

During the Edo period, and well into the 19th century, many elderly people willingly submitted to ubasute—death from perishing in the forest. Set in a poor village a century ago, Shohei Imamura’s 1983 masterpiece, Ballad of Narayama, depicts the brutal story of a man forced to carry his mother up the mythical mountain of Narayama.[19] Just turned seventy, his mother Orin wants to die to make way for the next generation. Although full of vigour (she deliberately smashes her famously healthy teeth with a rock to pretend they’ve fallen out), she happily and actively prepares her family for her death. Finally, Orin insists that her son carries her up the mountain in a wicker basket on his back. The film portrays the arduous journey with a reverential, almost mystical awe. When they reach the sacred space where many others have perished before her, Orin calmly prays among the graveyard of bones, shooing her distressed son away. He rushes back moments later as snow falls gently on her smiling face—referencing an earlier motif that signifies that this is unquestionably the right thing to do.

            Harakiri (dir: Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) dramatises the demise of the samurai during the peaceful Edo period from 1605 to 1867. After the Tokugawa shogunate had consolidated power, samurai suddenly became masterless in a post-feudal society that had no need for warriors. They were cut off from their lords (daimyo) and left to roam the countryside, no longer part of the noble class, but noble-men forced to give up sword-work to farm or live in poverty.

Kobayashi’s Harakiri, begins with a penniless samurai arriving at a palace to beg permission to use the courtyard to perform seppuku—a request for one last honour, a chance to die with dignity. Bushido, the way of the warrior, is a code of honour that upholds the central tenets of loyalty to the master and freedom from fear of death. A samurai imbued with bushido spirit would perform seppuku, or harakiri, to die honourably rather than surrender in defeat. This is not specifically an endorsement of suicide, yet there’s no denying completing the act is to choose death. Harakiri is told via flashbacks as the samurai kneels in the palace courtyard, clearly not wanting to take to his life, but unable not to do so. The heartless master insists that the bushido code must be upheld and the impoverished samurai (who has traded his sword for food) is forced to perform harakiri with a blunt bamboo stick—to die with his honour intact rather than be humiliated by his peers or poverty.

Seppuku has unofficially been practiced in recent times, the most infamous case was the samurai-style seppuku of Yukio Mishima in 1970. Mishima, one of Japan’s most famous novelists, had often represented seppuku in his novels and homemade films and carried out his ritual suicide in public as a nostalgic gesture for the past.[20]

A less common form of seppuku, sokotsu-shi, was also performed to make amends for wrongdoing or causing shame. It’s a principle that still resonates. Suicide rates escalated during the Japanese economic crisis in the 1990s and many of today’s suicides are a likely response to the shame of unemployment or not wanting to be a financial burden on one’s family.

            In traditional Japanese theatre and literary traditions, shinj?, (double suicide) was the simultaneous suicide of two lovers whose ninjo—personal feelings, are at odds with giri—social conventions. Double suicides were so common they became an important theme of bunraku puppet theatre repertory. Over half the domestic dramas written by Japan’s most famous 18th century dramatist, Monzaemon Chikamatsu, depict shinju.

Double Suicide is the 1969 adaptation of Chikamatsu’s 1721 doll-drama ‘The Love Suicides at Amijima’. Directed by Masahiro Shinoda, the film depicts the inability of a merchant to pay out the debts of his lover, a courtesan. As they can’t be together in this world, they decide to die together so they can be united in the next. Shinoda succeeds in revealing his characters inability to confront societal tensions through masterful use of mise-en-scène. An exponent of the Japanese new wave, Shinoda places kurago (bunraku puppeteers, masked and dressed in black) as players throughout the film. As silent witnesses to the unfolding tragedy, the kurago are always present, manipulating the lovers towards their inevitable fate as if to say shinju is the only way.

Norwegian Wood, Tran Anh Hung’s 2010 film based on Haruki Murakami’s best-selling novel, is yet another example of two young lovers united in death, although they take their lives eighteen months apart. When we see the delicate feet of the young woman hanging in the forest, the desaturated blue-green grade, soaring music score and elegiac mise-en-scène combine to echo Wataru Tsurumi’s grizzly proclamation in The Complete Manual of Suicide that hanging from a tree is a work of art.[21] It is no wonder then that shinju, as an idealised portrayal of romantic fulfilment, continues to be a common theme in contemporary Japanese culture.

Conclusion: floating in a liminal landscape        

Have the historical acceptance of voluntary death and the heroic representation of suicide within Japanese film and literature combined to make the forest an idealised repository of cultural memory? Has it created an aura or impression upon Jukai that lures people to it? In his book Landscape & Memory, Simon Schama says:

(If) landscape is the product of shared culture, it is by the same token built from a  rich deposit of myths, memories, and obsessions. The cults of the primitive forest, of the river of life, of the sacred mountain are in fact alive and well for all us if only we know where to look for them.[22]

Today, many Japanese believe that the life energy of the people who’ve died in the forest have been infused into the trees and permeate all of Jukai. Locals shun the forest and believe that simply entering it can create mental anguish that will lead to suicide. Have centuries of framing the suicidal self as a way of taking responsibility been a factor in making the forest a magnet for the despairing? Is a feeling of malevolence there simply because it has long been imagined there? By looking at the long history of voluntary death in Japan, we can see how a forest could become a site of cultural memory, transforming its topography into a liminal landscape. The question is, if once a place has become a suicide site, is it possible to reimagine it as John Bateson is hoping to do with his mission to install a protective barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge?

Notes


[1] An estimated 50 people jump from The Gap each year.

[2] The first suicide at The Gap was reported in 1863. Anne Harrison had lived at the Gap Hotel in the early 1860s when her husband was licensee. While there, her young nephew fell to his death from The Gap bluff. She returned a few years later to take her own life from the same spot.

[3] Pierre Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Me?moire,’ Representations: Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory 26 (1989): 7-24.

[4] The bridge opened to the public on May 27, 1937. The first recorded suicide occurred in August that year.

[5] Bateson, John. The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. California: University of California Press, 2012.

[6] John Bateson, The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge (California: University of California Press, 2012), 199.

[7] Eric Steel, The Bridge (USA, documentary, 2006).

[8] According to Bateson, 1% of jumpers survive, most from correcting their position as they descend.

[9] Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, Vol 3: Symbols, trans. Arthur Goldhamme (USA: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[10] A 2010 National Police Agency report revealed that there were 32,753 suicides in 2009, exceeding 30,000 for the 12th consecutive year and accounting for 3% of all deaths. According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization, Japan’s suicide rate is about 49.4 per 100,000 people (most recent statistics are from 2009), with men performing suicide more than twice the rate of women. Japan’s suicide rates are more than twice the United States (22.2 per 100,000) and at least three times the rate in Australia (16.4 per 100,000) and the United Kingdom (13.9 per 100,000). See

http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide_rates/en/

[11] Unfortunately, the novel has not been translated to English.

[12] Wataru Tsurumi, The Complete Manual of Suicide. (VDM Publishing, Japan, 1993).

[13] The Suicide Manual, (original title: Jisatsu Manyuaru) (2003) and The Suicide Manual 2: Intermediate Stage (original title: Jisatsu Manyuaru II) (2008). These videos are available via YouTube.

[14] Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, trans. John A. Spaulding and George Simpson (New York: The Free Press, 1951).

[15] In Japanese, the term for Japanophile is ‘shinnichi’ loosely translating as ‘pro sun’.

[16] Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (California: University of California Press, 1998).

[17] Maurice Pinguet, Voluntary Death in Japan (Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 1993).

[18]Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nunning, eds., A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 2.

[19] Ballad of Narayama must have touched a nerve as it went on to win Best Film at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.

[20] Mishima created a group called the Society of the Shield and conscripted young male students with the intension of protecting the Emperor, though he wasn’t under threat. They performed rituals, wore gold braid uniforms and would practice boot camp at Jukai. One of the boys was Morita, Mishima’s favourite and most probably his lover. Mishima named Morita his ‘second’ (giving him the honour of slicing off Mishima’s head after the first stomach incision) but ordered the others to stay alive. Was his politically motivated suicide a cover for shinju­—a lover’s suicide? The shinju that united Mishima and Morita was also a junshi—a suicide through fidelity, and refers to the medieval act of lower serving officers committing harakiri after the death of their lord.

[21] Tsurumi, The Complete Manual of Suicide, 1993.

[22] Simon Schama, Landscape & Memory (London: Harper Collins, 1995), 14.

 

Bibliography

Bateson, John. The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. California: University of California Press, 2012.

Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. New York: The Free Press, 1951.

Erll, Astrid., and Angsar Nunning, eds. A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2010.

McIntyre, Claire. On the Edge: Deaths at The Gap. Canberra: Ginninderra Press, 2001.

Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. London: Vintage, 1987.

Nora, Pierre. ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Me?moire.’ Representations: Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory 26 (1989)

Nora, Pierre. Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, Vol 3: Symbols. Translated by Arthur Goldhamme. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Pinguet, Maurice. Voluntary Death in Japan. Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 1993.

Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. California: University of California Press, 1998.

Schama, Simon. Landscape & Memory. London: Harper Collins, 1995.

Tsurumi, Wataru. The Complete Manual of Suicide. Tokyo: VDM Publishing, 1993.

Filmography

 Anh Hung, Tran. Norwegian Wood. Japan, 2010.

Kobayashi, Masaki. Harakiri. Japan, 1962.

Imamura, Shohei. Ballad of Narayama. Japan, 1983.

Shinoda, Masahiro. Double Suicide. Japan, 1969.

Steel, Eric. The Bridge. USA, documentary, 2006.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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