The History and Cultural Sub-Text Behind ‘The Forest’

By Emma Louise Backe

Undoubtedly, the Aokigahara forest, otherwise known as the Sea of Trees, which sits at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, has a preternatural quality, the ecological landscape as naturally arresting as it is unusual. Ribbons line the paths, partially due to the fact that compasses don’t seem to work properly in the forest, making it easy for hikers and visitors to get lost or disoriented (Mckenna 2015). The other reason for the ribbons is far more morbid—the other name ascribed to Aokigahara is Suicide Forest. It is estimated that anywhere between 50 and 100 people commit suicide in the forest each year (VICE 2012), and the location has inevitably built up something of an occult following, which may explain why Aokigahara is the setting of the new movie The Forest (2016). Under the tagline, “The Forest is real, “ the movie is ostensibly about a woman whose sister disappears into Aokigahara Forest and the search to find her. Cautioned to stay on the path, the movie appropriates not only the geographic locality of the forest and elements of Japanese folklore, but also whitewashes the narrative, subsequently erasing and ignoring the long cultural history of suicide in Japan, as well as the stigma still surrounding mental health issues such as depression in the country. The forest is indeed real, yet the writers and the directors seem to elide the equally real issues that contribute to the Aokigahara’s sinister reputation.

Aokigahara Forest, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

Aokigahara Forest, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

Anthropologists and sociologists have long been fascinated by the phenomenon of suicide in Japan specifically. Whereas suicide was historically understood as an individual pathology, one that somehow signaled social deviance, elements of traditional Japanese culture elevated certain acts of suicide as attempts to preserve and maintain honor (Benedict 1946). The tradition of hara-kiri, or seppuku, was a form of socially sanctioned suicide practiced among Japanese samurai as a part of their bushido honor code. In more contemporary Japanese military culture, kamikaze pilots regularly sacrificed their lives through suicide attacks throughout World War II. Other social scientists have also pointed out that whereas Christianity and Judaism contain strict religious bans upon suicide, “neither Shinto nor Buddhism places any explicit divine prohibition on the act of suicide” (Mckenna 2015, 294). Suicide in Japan has historically been perceived as a noble act conducted within a sociocentric, patriarchal culture that expects obedience, respect and the loyal preservation of traditions, particularly the ideology and generational continuity of filial honor. As Ruth Benedict wrote, “Suicide, properly done, will, according to [Japanese] tenets, clear his name and reinstate his memory” (1946, 317), as the Japanese strive toward “the constant goal of honor” (1946, 326).

Emile Durkheim (1897) dedicated his book Suicide to a comprehensive exploration of the sociological factors that may contribute to or support the phenomenon, positing several “types” of suicide that related to an individual’s psychological state. He argued that there were certain protective factors within a given society or community that could confer “immunity” to suicide or suicidal ideation. An individual’s proclivity toward suicide, according to Durkheim, related to one’s integration and regulation within society; too much or too little of either may lead to different types of suicide. Too much individualism could lead to egoistic suicide, whereas excessive social regulation may compel an individual to commit altruistic suicide out of a sense of obligation. On the other hand, individuals in a society experiencing some kind of disruption, whether economic, political or domestic, may be shorn of a sense of duty or purpose, thereby leading to anomic suicide. As Jones summarizes, “the moral constitution of a society—its insufficient or excessive degree of integration or regulation –establishes its contingent rate of voluntary deaths, its ‘natural aptitude’ for suicide; and individual suicidal acts are thus mere extensions and expressions of these underlying currents of egoism, altruism, and anomie” (1986). Much of Durkheim’s scholarship was marked by this tension between individual consciousness and what he called collective or social consciousness, which he perceived as subsuming the latter. Durkheim’s work has also informed how modern anthropologists and other social scientists approach contemporary Japanese suicide, which seems to have taken on a different cast than its feudal predecessor.

As Ruth Benedict wrote back in 1946, “Suicide is also more masochistic in modem Japan than it appears to have been in the historical tales of feudal times” (318). The statement is strangely ominous, considering the rise in suicides in Japan over the last several decades. It is estimated that over 30,000 people commit suicide every year in Japan (Estrin 2012); it is the leading cause of death for Japanese citizens under 30 and the country itself has one of the highest suicide rates in the world (Ueno 2005; Ozawa-de Silva 2008; Fisch 2013; Wright 2015). The forms of suicide that occur are as multiple as the potential explanations to make sense of the phenomenon. Many have indicated that the recent economic downturn may be to blame (Ozawa-de Silva 2008; Mckenna 2015). Some suggest that increasing job insecurity, layoffs, and unemployment have induced additional stress and anxiety upon the Japanese populace used to middle-class stability, compounded by a sense of devotion to “company spirit” (Mckenna 2015). During the modernization the Japanese state underwent during the Meiji Restoration, capitalist values and an intense work ethic were fused with some of the more traditional feudal ideologies, promoting a population of employees so dedicated to their job that death from overwork, or karoshi, is not uncommon. Indeed, “Government figures suggest that for 672 out of 2,207 work-related suicides in 2007 the underlying motivation was overwork (Harden 2008), while an article for RTT News (2010) suggests that health problems including work-related depression accounted for 47 percent of Japanese suicides in 2008” (Mckenna 2015, 300), signaling the paradox in the economic explanation that is often employed. The suicides may be a response to economic insecurity and the collapse of the dependability of the market, resulting in a manic work ethic amongst those who remain employed. Suicide could also be perceived as a form of “corporate atonement” or the result of the rise in depression amongst those who were laid off or suddenly found their long term financial plans in shambles (Ozawa-de Silva 2008, 522). In fact, among those who committed suicide in 2010, “some 57 percent of all the suicide victims were out of work when they died” (Gihooly 2011).

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Note left in Aokigahara Forest, VICE Documentary, http://www.vice.com/video/aokigahara-suicide-forest-v3

Yet, as with any cultural phenomenon, the economic downturn cannot be considered the sole vector contributing to the rise in suicides. Others have connected suicide with environmental disasters, such as the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (Blair 2011). Michael Fisch’s (2013) ethnographic research on commuter train suicides in Japan outlines the role of precarity in Japanese lives, indicating that the death of commuters upon Japanese train tracks signals a larger sense of disorder and “irregularity” in modern Japanese life. Others have invoked Durkheim’s concept of anomie, intimating that the rise in suicide is related to a broader sense of loneliness and alienation among the Japanese populace. This sense of alienation may be particularly acute among Japanese adolescents who suffer from increasingly rigorous academic demands and bullying in school; some have also suggested that technological ubiquity has hollowed out social lives and relationships, further promoting a sense of disconnection (Ozawa-de Silva 2008). The Japanese youth who lack a sense of meaning in life may be further disheartened by the economic hardships their parents have undergone, thereby generating a broader sense of social suffering (Kleinman 1995). In this vacuum of social connection or existential meaning, the Internet has emerged as a digital space to facilitate suicide pacts among strangers (Ozawa-de Silva 2008). Digital media and isolation have also played a role in hikikomori—Japanese individuals, usually men, who have shut themselves away from society, instead deciding to live in a conscientious limbo that could be considered a form of social suicide. There also seem to be gender differences in suicide rates. Men appear to commit suicide more frequently than women, although women’s suicide rates increase with age (Ueno 2005; Gihooly 2011; Liu et al. 2013; Liu et al. 2015).

While different generations in the Japanese population may be dealing with alienation through alternative coping mechanisms, it is also clear that depression has been a critical component in suicide rates. The mental health diagnosis, however, did not exist until it was imported by pharmaceutical companies. Due to the culture’s hesitancy to use anti-depressant drugs, and the lack of a salient cultural equivalent for the concept of depression, the condition was marketed by pharmaceutical companies as a “cold of the heart” or soul, one that could only be treated through medication (Vickery 2010; Watters 2011). Pharmaceutical companies and psychiatrists campaigned to promote the concept of mild depression throughout the country in order to sell more drugs. While this marketing strategy seems to have been effective, “In Japan, mental illness and the practice of psychiatry have been highly stigmatized for over a hundred years, with the dominant image being of a locked hospital into which insane people, with hopelessly debilitating conditions, enter and never leave” (Vickery 2010, 369-370). This stigma persists today, rendering the suicide epidemic, as some have dubbed it, all the more dire. Individuals struggling with depression, feelings of loneliness or isolation are less likely to seek help or reach out if they are afraid of judgment or being perceived of as weak, leaving bleaker options for relief far more accessible. In a society that was built upon the determination of a collectivist spirit, modern suicide may be a representation of social fragmentation and the attempts of individuals to either assert their autonomy or demonstrate just how thoroughly their nation and community has failed them.

Which brings us back to Aiokigahara Forest. Although the forest may be used for hiking purposes, “the local people already believed before World War II that once a person had entered the forest, it would be impossible to find a way out, and subsequently many people tried to take their own lives in Jukai [another name for the forest]” (Takahashi 1988, 165-166). The aforementioned ribbons were instituted to help guide travelers out of the forest, in case they changed their minds about committing suicide. Some Japanese may spend time camping out in the woods, considering whether they really want to end their lives. Most people decide to commit suicide by hanging, although some choose to overdose with pills or die from exposure (Takahashi 1988; VICE 2012). Forest workers are responsible for locating deceased bodies, often discovering mementos left behind or clues to the person’s life before they passed away. The status of the forest as a suicide destination have led signs to be erected throughout the forest, encouraging hikers to remain on the designated paths and forcefully reminding visitors that suicide isn’t the only option. The forest is also reputed to have supernatural resonances. If the bodies of suicide victims are undetected, their yurei—their ghosts or spirits—may continue to haunt the forest, calling out at night. Azusa Hayano, a Japanese geologist who works in the area, contends that modern suicide is the result of people who are unable to adapt to changing social conditions. He blames the rise of digital technology, saying that the decrease in face-to-face conversation has had a negative effect on Japan’s psyche. “I think it’s impossible to die heroically by suicide” (2012), he stated in a VICE documentary, signaling the shift in discourse away from the ideology of honor historically associated with suicide. While Japan has built a reputation as the ultimate purveyors of horror, the suicide phenomenon in Aiokigahara indicates some much deeper sociological and health issues the country is struggling to address.

Rather than working to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness in Japan, or grappling with the numerous factors that may be contributing to suicide in the country, The Forest places a white, American woman at the center of the narrative. Aokigahara forest is a culturally specific and resonant space for Japanese citizen, one that evokes particular national problems and concerns. By appropriating such a deeply fraught and complicated space, the movie risks essentializing the numerous issues covered above and ignoring the ongoing plight for many Japanese youth and adults. By rendering the Aokigahara forest into a cinematic spectacle, the filmmakers draw upon a somber narrative and history without fully understanding or respecting the larger politics at play. This is not an issue of entertainment for many Japanese citizens. I cannot claim to know how the Japanese may feel about yet another culturally exploitative endeavor on the part of Hollywood, nor do I speak for them. I write this because I think it’s important to remember to be conscientious consumers of pop culture. Movies of this nature can only be made if audience members choose to participate in the warped narratives they purport. We need to hold our entertainment industry responsible for the harm it causes in appropriating certain elements of foreign cultures while withholding broader opportunities for representation or empathetic conversation. After The Forest leaves theatres, suicides will doubtless continue, the deeper factors underlying such a death wish still stigmatized and unaddressed. This is the most haunting aspect of The Forest and the larger subtext it withholds.

Works Cited

Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1946.

Blair, Gavin G. “Japan’s suicide rate is expected to rise after triple disasters in March.” BMJ 343 (2011).

Durkheim, Émile. Suicide (Le suicide). Paris: P.U.F., 1897.

Estrin, James. “Wandering in Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.’” The New York Times, 2012. http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/25/wandering-in-japans-suicide-forest/?_r=2

Fisch, Michael. “Tokyo’s Commuter Train Suicides and the Society of Emergence.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (2013): 320-343. http://www.culanth.org/articles/505-tokyo-s-commuter-train-suicides-and-the-society-of

Gihooly, Rob. “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.’” The Japan Times 2011. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2011/06/26/general/inside-japans-suicide-forest/#.VnXQaMArIxc

Jao, Charline (2016). “The Geopolitics of Horror: Natalie Dormer and The Forest.” The Mary Sue. http://www.themarysue.com/geopolitics-of-horror-natalie-dormer-the-forest/

Jones, Robert Alun. Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986. 82-114. http://durkheim.uchicago.edu/Summaries/suicide.html

Jones, Maggie. “Shutting Themselves In.” The New York Times Magazine, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/15japanese.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Kleinman, Arthur. Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Liu, Y., Zhang, Y., Cho, Y.T., Obayashi, Y., Arai, A. and H. Tamashiro. “Gender differences of suicide in Japan, 1947-2010.” Journal of Affective Disorders 151 (2013): 325-330.

Liu, Y., Zhang, Y., Arai, A., Obayashi, T. and H. Tamashiro. “Gender-Based Seasonality of Suicide in Japan, 2005-2012.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health 27 (2015): NP1999-NP2007.

Mckenna, Tony. “The Suicide Forest: A Marxist Analysis of the High Suicide Rate in Japan.” Rethinking Marxism 27 (2015): 293-302.

Ozawa-de Silva, Chikako. “Too Lonely to Die Alone: Internet Suicide Pacts and Existential Suffering in Japan.” Cult Med Psychiatry 32 (2008): 516-551.

Takahashi, Yoshitomo. “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest.” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 18 (1988): 164-175.

Ueno, Kayako. “Suicide as Japan’s major export? A note on Japanese Suicide Culture.” Espaco Academico 44 (2005). http://www.espacoacademico.com.br/044/44eueno_ing.htm

VICE. “Aokigahara Suicide Forest.” 2012. http://www.vice.com/video/aokigahara-suicide-forest-v3

Vickery, Ken. “Widening the Psychiatric Gaze: Reflection son PsychoDoctor, Depression, and Recent Transitions in Japanese Mental Health Care.” Transcultural Psychiatry 47 (2010): 363-391.

Watters, Ethan. Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Wright, Rebecca. “Japan’s worst day for teen suicides.” CNN 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/01/asia/japan-teen-suicides/

Zada, Jason. The Forest. 2016.

 

 

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About Emma Louise Backe

MA in Medical Anthropology and Global Gender Policy from George Washington University, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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