The Forest: How a Setting Can Create a Dialogue in the Face of Popular Culture

1 year ago Alger Mag Editor 0

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A woman goes missing inside an eerie and mysterious wood. Her twin, despite all warning, follows her into the haunted grounds, hoping to bring her sister out alive.  This is the basic plot of Jason Zada’s debut horror film “The Forest,” released at the beginning of this year. While an interesting basis for a work of fiction, the primary source of inspiration for this movie came from reality: the Aokigahara Forest. Located at the base of Mount Fuji, Aokigahara Forest is a beautiful nature park, a favorite spot for tourists and locals to hike and explore the area around the mountain. It is one of the world’s most popular places to commit suicide.

Japan struggles with one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world. In 2014, about 70 people took their own lives every day. Although the fastest growing demographic of those who commit suicide are men between the ages of 20 and 44, it is a tragedy that strikes every sector of Japanese society.  

Japan has historically had a complex relationship between suicide and culture. In the Edo period of Japanese history, ritualized seppuku was a method of pragmatic suicide to avoid torture or losing honor when captured or defeated in battle. Similar ideas of honor and nationalism powered the recruitment propaganda and training of Kamikaze pilots during World War II. While these ritualistic acts are incredibly rare today, the underlying values of tradition may still linger. Honor is one cultural explanation, conformity another. Group centricity in Japanese culture has been extensively explored; the desire to fit in and sense of duty to others can be traced as a cause of societal behaviors.

These cultural explanations influence suicide throughout Japan in differing ways. With a shift away from traditional Japanese ideals toward certain Western practices, for example, many children no longer serve as primary caregivers to their aging parents.  More and more of the elderly, especially those who live in rural Japan, are left feeling isolated and depressed. As a result, many turn to suicide to avoid a solitary death. The pressures of economic instability in a traditionally patriarchal society help to explain why men, ages 20 to 44, are increasingly committing suicide. For decades, it was customary for a family to have a male breadwinner who held one job for life. However, in 2008-2009, Japan faced its worst financial crisis since World War II, leading to a record high unemployment rate. Steady jobs were precarious. Men could not provide for their families, hope slid away, and depression rates increased. Today, nearly 40% of young people still struggle to find consistent work and many, feeling as if they are unable to progress, turn to suicide. Japanese insurance companies pay generously to the families of those who commit suicide. In times of financial pressure, taking your own life can be seen as the pragmatic decision by taking responsibility and providing for the family.

Technology, too has contributed to Japan’s high rate of suicide. New digital innovations have made it easier to go through life with little face-to-face interaction. This rise has given way to a phenomenon called Shinjuu, suicide pacts formed between people on online message boards. In a society where emotional expression and mental illnesses are taboo, people often turn inward, isolating themselves within the Internet without an understanding of how to reach out to others when they need help.

In Japan, depression is a misunderstood plight. The government is taking strides to improve the situation, but suicide is treated as a social issue and not as a matter of public health. Suicide and depression are perceived as an individual’s inability to adjust into society, consequences of bleak economic outlook rather than their biological psychopathology.

Even if mental health were a socially acceptable subject to speak about, Japan’s healthcare system is not equipped to provide proper care. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists do not typically work together with patients. If one does get prescribed a proper drug, the appropriate counseling that should accompany the diagnosis rarely follows. This is due largely in part to the lack of training it takes to be a clinical psychologist in Japan – anyone can open up a business as a counselor. For those seeking help in Japan, it is almost impossible to distinguish who is competent and capable of providing treatment.

The tragedies of Aokigahara Forest should never be forgotten. They reflect not only national, but global issues surrounding the struggles of mental health. Although The Forest has sensationalized the subject, we can use the opportunity as a platform to discuss mental health more freely and positively to push for change.

Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed during the month of May in the United States since 1949. To take part, visit nmha.org or nami.org; for additional resources, visit mentalhealth.gov.

By: Malerie Holte

Photo Attribution: peaceful-jp-scenery, “Mt. Fuji at Lake Motosu”.  Taken from flickr’s Creative Commons.