During Oshogatsu — the New Year, Japan’s biggest family holiday — American YouTube star Logan Paul set off international controversy by posting a video of himself encountering a dead body inside a Japanese forest. The forest goes by the name of Aokigahara. It formed out of a devastating volcanic eruption that occurred in the year 864. That traumatic historical event helped infuse Mt Fuji with a powerful strength over the collective unconscious that continues in Japan to this day.
Because of this and the ease of getting lost in the forest if one wanders off the beaten path, there is a history, sad and real, of people venturing into Aokigahara to take their own lives. Yet the forest also holds an ethereal beauty that begs to be liberated from the self-fulfilling prophecy of a place where people go to die.
It’s a compelling myth, the “suicide forest,” but myths are subject to be rewritten. To deny Aokigahara’s tragic history would be disrespectful to the lives lost there. To go on letting it inhabit the same dark corner of the human imagination, however, would imbue it with the wrong kind of power.
The first step to save the forest is reclaiming its name
Aokigahara is one name for the forest, but it also goes by the fuller name of Aokigahara Jukai or just Jukai (“Sea of Trees” in Japanese). However, those names may not roll off the tongue as easy for people outside Japan.
In the English-speaking world, the phrase “suicide forest” renders the place simple, conceptually. It also attaches an immediate stigma to Aokigahara, one that can easily be mitigated by instead using the more poetic nickname “Sea of Trees.” This name better captures the full grandeur of how this wind-swept forest appears from the mountain with its treetops undulating like waves.
Despite the ever-present danger of further volcanic eruptions, Mt. Fuji is a stunning natural landmark known the world over for its beauty. This forest should be, too. The Golden Gate Bridge is actually a more popular spot for suicide in the form of jumpers, but it’s been able to maintain its status as a beautiful landmark and icon of California without being confined to the pigeon-hole of a “suicide bridge.”
When you stop invoking death with every reference to a place and supplant that idea with something more graceful, the tone of the conversation changes. Don’t reduce it to a suicide forest, then. Call it the Sea of Trees.
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