Blurring the boundaries between research and fiction: Aokigahara

For many years I had been aware of the English-language media’s seeming obsession with Aokigahara – often referred to as Japan’s ‘suicide forest’. I’d not seen the same level of interest in the Japanese media. After having spent many years researching the JAL flight JL123 plane crash and particularly the memorialisation of those who died in the crash, I was intrigued by there being a place in Japan which seemed to go against everything that made sense to me after my numerous trips to Ueno-mura, the village in which JL123 crashed.

I visited Aokigahara in 2011, spending the day walking around parts of the forest. As I was working on my academic book Japan: The Basics, it was natural for me to include a section on Aokigahara within it. There are also a selection of photographs of the forest in the book. Although I also did a presentation on the forest, comparing it with what I had seen in Ueno-mura, and have included discussion about it within my teaching, I didn’t think that I would re-visit Aokigahara in any other form.

However, when I started developing my second novel, Tokyo 20/20 Vision, I decided to include Aokigahara within it. That part of the story nearly got cut after another bit of ridiculous coverage in the English-language media relating to the forest just as I was about to start working on Chapter One. I’m not even going to mention any details of this story as I don’t think the people involved should be allowed to make a living off their antics. In the end, I decided that I would my novel as an opportunity to discuss some issues relating to the forest and its reputation. In so doing, I hope that more people – possibly those who wouldn’t read an academic book like Japan: The Basics – will get to understand more about what Aokigahara is like, but also question why the Japanese media doesn’t discuss some of the problems in society that lead people to take their own lives. This is the power of fiction. It is a chance to raise awareness of big issues and to introduce people to things that they may not otherwise read about.

As more and more people travel to Japan, whether it be for the Olympics or for tourism, I hope that more will travel to Aokigahara and enjoy it for its beauty.

Also see my post Aokigahara in Manga – And Does Aokigahara Still Have a Place in Academic Writing?

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