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Desperate Japanese head to 'suicide forest'

  • Story Highlights
  • Forest with stunning views of Mount Fuji is also known as place to die
  • Counselors now roam Aokigahara Forest, hoping to help the desperate
  • Suicides in Japan were 15 percent higher in January than a year earlier
  • Officials fear more people will kill themselves amid the tough economy
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By Kyung Lah
CNN
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AOKIGAHARA FOREST, Japan (CNN) -- Aokigahara Forest is known for two things in Japan: breathtaking views of Mount Fuji and suicides. Also called the Sea of Trees, this destination for the desperate is a place where the suicidal disappear, often never to be found in the dense forest.

Japan's Aokigahara Forest is known as the "suicide forest" because people often go there to take their own lives.

Japan's Aokigahara Forest is known as the "suicide forest" because people often go there to take their own lives.

Taro, a 46-year-old man fired from his job at an iron manufacturing company, hoped to fade into the blackness. "My will to live disappeared," said Taro. "I'd lost my identity, so I didn't want to live on this earth. That's why I went there."

Taro, who did not want to be identified fully, was swimming in debt and had been evicted from his company apartment.

He lost financial control, which he believes to be the foundation of any stable life, he said. "You need money to survive. If you have a girlfriend, you need money. If you want to get married, you need it for your life. Money is always necessary for your life." Video Watch Taro describe why he wanted to die in "suicide forest" »

Taro bought a one-way ticket to the forest, west of Tokyo, Japan. When he got there, he slashed his wrists, though the cut wasn't enough to kill him quickly.

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He started to wander, he said. He collapsed after days and lay in the bushes, nearly dead from dehydration, starvation and frostbite. He would lose his toes on his right foot from the frostbite. But he didn't lose his life, because a hiker stumbled upon his nearly dead body and raised the alarm.

Taro's story is just one of hundreds logged at Aokigahara Forest every year, a place known throughout Japan as the "suicide forest." The area is home to the highest number of suicides in the entire country.

Japan's suicide rate, already one of the world's highest, has increased with the recent economic downturn.

There were 2,645 suicides recorded in January 2009, a 15 percent increase from the 2,305 for January 2008, according to the Japanese government.

The Japanese government said suicide rates are a priority and pledged to cut the number of suicides by more than 20 percent by 2016. It plans to improve suicide awareness in schools and workplaces. But officials fear the toll will rise with unemployment and bankruptcies, matching suicide spikes in earlier tough economic times.

"Unemployment is leading to this," said Toyoki Yoshida, a suicide and credit counselor.

"Society and the government need to establish immediate countermeasures to prevent suicides. There should be more places where they can come and seek help."

Yoshida and his fellow volunteer, Norio Sawaguchi, posted signs in Aokigahara Forest urging suicidal visitors to call their organization, a credit counseling service. Both men say Japanese society too often turns a cold shoulder to the unemployed and bankrupt, and breeds a culture where suicide is still seen as an honorable option.

Local authorities, saying they are the last resort to stop people from killing themselves in the forest, have posted security cameras at the entrances of the forest.

The goal, said Imasa Watanabe of the Yamanashi Prefectural Government is to track the people who walk into the forest. Watanabe fears more suicidal visitors will arrive in the coming weeks.

"Especially in March, the end of the fiscal year, more suicidal people will come here because of the bad economy," he said. "It's my dream to stop suicides in this forest, but to be honest, it would be difficult to prevent all the cases here."

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One year after his suicide attempt, Taro is volunteering with the credit counseling agency that helped him get back on his feet. He's still living in a shelter and looking for a job. He's ashamed, he said, that he still thinks about suicide.

"I try not to think about it, but I can't say never. For now, the will to live is stronger."

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