What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying. — Albert Camus
Aokigahara is a rocky, cavernous forest at the base of Mount Fuji – resting near a peaceful lake. Because of the high, dense trees, the absence of wildlife, and the bizarre macabre spirit of the place it is known as the “sea of trees.” It is also a close second as the most sought out destination to commit suicide.
Since the early eighteenth century records have indicated that this forest has been specifically chosen as the final stop along so many peoples terrestrial journeys. It is believed that that the barbaric – though all too common – practice of ubasate was performed there. Ubasate was the practice of sending elderly family members to the woods, so that they would die there exposed to the elements.
For years people have voluntarily journeyed to these woods to leave their world, for whatever reason. Hundreds journey to it every year to breathe their last breathes and commit their last thoughts. Some go through to the final journey in life and choose to end it, others reconsider. It is estimated that every year over one hundred people die there. Of course there are signs, urging people to go back, to fix their lives, to be strong. For some these aren’t matters to reconsider.
Most will take some kind of poison and lay amongst the muted world to take their final breathes.
It must be a most bizarre and melancholy way to end it all. To cut life off amongst those trees, so tall and green, that block the crisp cool winds from the mysterious ponds, the gentle lakes, the sobering mountains. Imagine glancing at the sky, where beyond the fading shadows of large leafs that in a stillness utter not a sound, you see the large and gorgeous monuments of clouds, and they are there for you, for the last time. You feel the inner peace of nature, the inner silence of the world which you had inhabited, and in which you could not exist. At the very least there is something bitterly beautiful to the whole mad affair. But most are not as serene nor culturally thematic. For them the beacon shines from a tall high place.
The large Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China, has been the choice for over 2,000; San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge has been the choice for over 1,600 – there is even a sign on the bridge reading: “Crisis Counseling. There is Hope, Make the Call. The consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic.”
Wherever there’s an awesomely large bridge it seems to attract the frame of mind that wishes to not cross to its other end, but is surely bent on its assistance for their crossing into the afterlife.
Of all the many pitfalls of childhood, dreams are perhaps our early and only brushes with the divine exhilaration of flight. We tend to lose these dreams as we get older, until we are so grounded and bedraggled by the earth that we forget that cool rush to take off in flight.
Perhaps it is this early sense of joy that gives those souls the impetus to climb those heights and go? Perhaps it is the fall of Icarus? But it is also about space. It is about the world of the space, its cosmological significance in the culture of the jumper, and the culture that the jumper reiterates or even originates, with his or her act.
There is an element of the public, the performance. There is the knowledge that they will be seen and remembered, their act will be forever entwined with the space in which it occurred, and the more visible the space the more magnified their memory becomes and the significance that its derivatives acquire. Thus the space acquires with each act new and unforeseen characteristics. In a macabre method the space attains the status of a subliminal death cult alter, which requires the sacrifice of human beings, that still into the twenty-first century, craves the blood of its adherents to keep society in flux. It is a myth which occurs before our eyes.
In Estonia, for example, there is a cliff known as Turisalu. Turisalu is part of the Baltic Klint, a long and stretch of limestone escarpment across several islands in the Baltic Sea. The geography is wild and beautiful, some parts have large gorgeous drops, with waterfalls and spare and lively wildlife; other parts have stark romantic cliffs, with cold and rocky shores beneath their tops.
And it is here, in those romantic parts with sharp and edgy rocks, that young Estonians come to jump. Perhaps the youth of Estonia is particularly fond of this place for the youth of all times has been fond of the romantic, the natural beauty of something so heavy and painful, so wild, untamed, as rocky cliffs and restless shores? Of course the some do it for the action, but most do it because of pain. It is a pain that overwhelms and consumes, it hurts physically and emotionally. It troubles you, it stops you, it prevents you from living.
The great American historian and journalist Iris Chang (1968-2004), described her pain in a suicide note:
“When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations and years. When you do not, you live not just by the day — but by the minute. It is far better that you remember me as I was — in my heyday as a best-selling author — than the wild-eyed wreck who returned from Louisville… Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take — the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea. I know that my actions will transfer some of this pain to others, indeed those who love me the most. Please forgive me.”
The next morning Iris was found by a county water district employee along State Route 17 near Los Gatos, California. She had driven there in her car, parked it along the highway, and shot herself through the mouth with a revolver. Chang was a great activist and historian, and her suicide is different from the prominent nature of public, or collective-space-suicide, i.e., destination-suicides. Nevertheless, her explanation gives us a sense to understand the pain, the unavoidable situation that she was in.
She had suffered from mental issues for some time, and had spent time in psychiatric centers and was on heavy medications – and mental issues are the dominant reason for suicide everywhere in the world. Depression can be cured, but sometimes it cannot, even with the most reasonable, rational, and lovely of humans. But what is it about a collective space that draws the suicides?
Let us for a moment ponder over those people who decided to go to a specific spot to spend their last moments, such as the Sea of Trees, such as the bridges, and the cliffs, and rushing waters of Niagara Falls. There is a greater, planned, communal effort in this decision. Do they feel a kinship towards those tragic spirits that might still haunt those public spaces? Do they think that there is a certain gateway to the other side in those specific spots?
In February of 1933 a twenty-one year old female student called Kiyoko Matsumoto confessed to fellow classmate at the Jissan Girls College that she was in love with her. In a love note, Matsumoto wrote: “Dearest, I am bewildered to distraction by the perplexities of maturing womanhood. I can stand the strain no longer. What shall I do? I shall jump into a volcano.”
Lesbian relationships were considered a taboo in Japanese culture, and the concept of committing suicide to save ones honor is still practiced. The girl to whom Matsumoto confessed to was Masako Tomita, who, strangely enough, took the young Matsumoto to the volcanic crater on Mount Mihara and urged her to jump to her death.
Upon returning to the Jissin School, Tomika told everyone about the event, and the news spread. In one year, close to 1,000 Japanese people, mostly men and over 100 women, came to end their lives on Mount Mihara.
The strange suicide fad that the attractive young girl started resulted in a series of copycats, created a suicide destination, or suicide point that brought out people to share in a collective offering of their lives. Whatever those individuals personally believed and interpreted the actions of Matsumoto, or of her counterparts, their collective actions formed an objective legacy of a specific space.
This space, once not attributed to the elements of suicide, was now forming a new narrative of a public space, in some ways normalizing the taboo and rewriting the social and historical geography of the volcano. Thus public suicide points act as normalizing forces for the redefinition of public spaces.