KOFU, YAMANASHI PREF. - Suicides nationwide topped 30,000 last year for the 14th consecutive year, but by prefecture Yamanashi has had the worst rate for the past five years, according to statistics by the National Police Agency.
Yamanashi had 36.1 suicides per 100,000 people in 2011, compared with 23.7 for Tokyo and 21.7 for Osaka, the agency figures show.
The dubious distinction may be in part because of the Aokigahara Jukai (Sea of Trees) forest area that stretches northwest of Mount Fuji, which straddles Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures.
The thick virgin forest on solidified lava is notorious for being a magnet for people wishing to end their lives anonymously — and presumably they are not just citizens of Yamanashi.
Local residents have posted signs urging people not to commit suicide and even talk to people who may seem suicidal, but to little apparent avail, as the 4,000-hectare forest is easily accessible.
Part of the forest is included in the Mount Fuji area the government is seeking to register as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
At one entry point at the woods, one may notice a sign that would probably not be found near a tourist spot. “Life is a precious gift from your parents,” says the sign set up by local police. “Please do not worry on your own. Talk to us.”
Trees in the forest are marked with tape apparently to keep hikers from getting lost.
In 2009, Yamanashi started hiring people to keep watch in the forest and approach anyone who seemed out of sorts or didn’t appear to be a tourist or hiker.
The prefectural police force has not divulged how many suicides it has encountered in the forest out of concern that such revelations may seem like an invitation to the suicidal. The police have, however, claimed to have prevented more than 140 people from taking their lives.
Yasuhiko Kawamura, 41, who keeps a watch on the forest, said trying to prevent suicides is a tough job. “If you get too involved, you yourself will get depressed.”
With limited watchers, local authorities have since 2008 also coached area residents into trying to discourage the suicidal.
Around 20 citizens took part in a session in the city of Fujiyoshida late last year. Each was given a manual and a certificate of participation, but there have been no reported cases of any of them managing to prevent a suicide.
Writer Azusa Hayano, 65, says he has found more than 100 bodies in Jukai and talked to around 300 people. Many, he says, are hoping to be approached. “If you are worried about something, just talk to somebody,” he said.
Yukio Shige, 68, who runs a nonprofit group seeking to curb suicides in Tojinbo, Fukui Prefecture, said: “The consecutive worst record for Yamanashi Prefecture is a result of weak support. The government is hardly aware that supporting those people socially cornered will lead to saving lives.
“They should set up a consultation post like an asylum where people can take temporary refuge,” he said.