In August 2011, my friend disappeared for two weeks. During his absence, he visited places in Japan known as “famous suicide spots,” such as the Aokigahara Sea of Trees and Tojinbo. At the time he was 23 years old, looking for a place to die. With the support of his friends and family, he seemed to be recovering upon his return, but in August 2015, he left this world — without talking to anyone, leaving nothing behind. He took his life through a suicide method that was spoken about often at the time. Would it have still happened had he not known about that method, which is said to enable a painless death? Would it have, at the least, delayed his leaving a little bit more?
Our psyche is sometimes deprived of life by a “mind virus” that dominates it.
Since Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, suicides imitating the novel’s protagonist occurred one after another among young people. As a result, Goethe’s work has a history of being banned in several countries. Love suicides also became frequent in Japan in the early 1700s, primarily due to Joruri plays such as The Love Suicides at Sonezaki by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The responses were so severe that the shogunate forbade its performance. At the time, the chain of love suicides that spread throughout Japan were almost like an infectious disease, and it was often referred to as “love suicide tuberculosis.”
History has always repeated itself, and the near-admiration of suicide continued to be fuelled by the suicides of Misao Fujimura, Ryunosuke Akutagawa and the Sakatayama double suicide. It spread like a virus throughout society, from one person’s brain to another.
In 1933, a suicide that occurred on Mount Mihara in Oshima was sensationally reported by the media. It was the suicide of a beautiful woman with no chaperone, who proclaimed she was going to heaven before mysteriously disappearing into smoke, without leaving behind a corpse, drawing a lot of attention to the story. As a result, in just one year, there were 994 attempted suicides that happened in a similar manner on Mount Mihara. 95% of the victims were under 30 years old. The number of tourists to the mountain increased by 50% from the previous year, and 150,000 people came to see the site of the suicide during the course of a year. Mount Mihara also gained the image of being a “suicide spot,” attracting many people who wanted to commit suicide for at least three years after the event.
Mount Mihara is no longer considered a “suicide spot,” but the most famous suicide site in the world is still in Japan. It is the Aokigahara Sea of Trees. Rumor has it that this place became recognized globally as a suicide spot following the publication of a novel by Seicho Matsumoto in 1960, titled The Tower of Waves. Suicides had taken place there occasionally in the past, but the scene of “a beautiful woman on the verge of suicide in a sea of trees” depicted in the novel and the film, released in the same year, must have made this seem like an attractive option to some.
In 1974, sociologist David P. Phillips named the phenomenon that causes these imitative suicides the “Werther Effect.” In 2000, the World Health Organization published How to report suicide cases in ways which prevent suicide —in other words, a guideline for how the media should report suicide. Among the items outlined in the guidelines that could possibly “cause a chain of suicides” is posting photographs and wills, and reporting details concerning the location and method of a death. But, since the report was published, these kinds of details continue to be mentioned when the media reports the suicides of famous people, or news-hook suicides that draw people’s attention. The suicide of Yukiko Okada caused the “Yukiko Syndrome” through its media reports, and the Shin-Koiwa Station became a “suicide spot” through media reports and Internet memes.
The people committing suicide have no intention of creating followers—but people who are left behind are sometimes compelled to commit their own death. The words and accounts that accompany suicide change in form and dissemination, influencing people’s behavior when they face difficulties. “I’ll repent by dying”; “We’ll be bound in Heaven”; “I only bring trouble to my family”; “I’m better off dead”; “I’ll make you regret”; “I’ll be reborn”; “The meaning to life”; “I have a right to die”; etc.
Are people perhaps repeating words they have heard before? Even if this isn’t the case, is suicide really the only path left? While the brain matures, young people often behave impulsively. The majority of imitative suicides are committed by young people. Furthermore, young people are more familiar with the Internet than other age group; they find a sense of familiarity within the voices of the invisible crowd that inhabit it. They are suitable prey to the suicide “mind virus” that makes people consider suicide. Are the people that use the word “die” on a daily basis aware of its power?
When mentally unstable, lingering in the gap between “I want to die” and “I want to live,” the “inevitable end”—death—becomes a great temptation. Japanese people sometimes think of desperately wanting to live as something shameful, but it is never shameful. It is the pain that is the problem. Mental, physical, economic: people only want to escape from pain. They are not looking for death—they are looking for a liberation from pain. Death merely presents itself as a simple and clear method of liberation. I’m not saying that dying is necessarily a bad thing, but there are no possibilities for change if you are not alive.
Through this project, I consider how we are influenced by people other than ourselves, and whether recognizing the enemy known as the “suicide mind virus” may become a vaccine for it.
— Kenji Chiga
Editor’s Note: Kenji Chiga created an amazing artist’s book and installation out of his research, and presented it at the Breda Photo Festival in the Netherlands, with support of Reminders Photography Stronghold in Tokyo. We’re honored to be able to present 42 images from the project here, as well as this short video, which shows the book in more complete form.