RICHARD LLOYD PARRY walks into the woods where scores of people go to take their lives under the shadow of Mt Fuji



TOKYO - They find the first one after less than a quarter of an hour, just off one of the narrow paths and no more than 800m into the Aokigahara Sea of Trees. A man called Miura is standing on the path as I arrive, telling the story to his fellow volunteers and shaking his head, half with nervousness and half with pride.



"I saw his knapsack first, and then I looked again and I noticed him," he said. "Can't have been there more than a day or two. I didn't want to look at the face."



It is a perpetual twilight in the Sea of Trees, the rain is falling, and I do not want to see the face either.

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I push through anyway and there, just around the corner, is Miura's find. He rests on his knees, with his face and arms slumped against the ground, in an expression of anguish or supplication. His hair is close-cropped and slightly grey, his shirt is clean and blue, and a long gash runs across the right side of his neck.



I wonder how old he is, and what he used to do this to himself, but I am saved from my own curiosity by the arrival of the police, who bustle everyone out of the way and set to work with cameras and body bags. In less than an hour the dead man is wrapped, sealed and wheeled on a metal trolley to the car park where they are gathering this year's harvest from the Sea of Trees.



The Aokigahara Sea of Trees is a remarkable place, and in different circumstances it would be known for any number of interesting things. In a country overrun with development, it is a genuine wilderness, one of the few virgin woods left in Japan. Wild mushrooms grow in its mossy cavities; looming above it is the thrilling and immaculate shape of Mt Fuji, Japan's most famous and most sacred mountain.



But Japanese know Aokigahara for one reason alone, and there is nowhere else like it in the country, probably nowhere in the world. Every year, people come here in their scores with the sole aim of committing suicide.



As they have done every year for the past three decades, a small army of police, volunteers and attendant journalists arrive for an annual search day to bring them out.



The annual search began in 1970, but never have there been so many bodies found as now.



In the 70s, about 20 bodies were discovered by walkers or police over a year, with just one or two of them being found on the day of the annual search.



But 10 years ago, the number began rising and 57 corpses were found in 1994. Last year, there were more than 70 bodies. The four found in the latest annual search - including the man in the blue shirt - brought this year's tally to 48.

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"We've had three in the last few days alone," said Kiyotaka Oyamada, chief of the local volunteer firemen on this year's search.



"Most of them are middle-aged, although you get a few youngsters, of course. Every now and then there's a couple who go together - love suicides, as it were, but none this year. No teenagers this year, either, and for that I'm very grateful."



As you might expect, the residents of the Aokigahara area have come to take a matter-of-fact, even an exasperated, attitude to the despair and death that their forest attracts, although even they are not immune to a certain ghoulish fascination.



Every taxi driver has stories about passengers whom they have taken from the station to the forest, confident that they would not be taking them back.



"We would love it if you media people would write about the walks and the trees and the beauty of it all," said Oyamada, looking round in despair at the three camera crews and half a dozen reporters who gathered to document his grisly mission.



"But the hikers stick to the other side of Fuji because they are worried that they will be walking along with their kids, and suddenly there will be a dead man hanging from a tree. I see the relatives who come here looking for their dads and sons, I see the anxiety and suffering that it causes. I want people to understand suicide as a kind of crime that creates nothing but misery."



As the problem has grown, so has the search. For the latest one, 300 volunteer firemen and 44 police officers gathered at the car park.



This is truly a a spooky forest, somewhere between the Brothers Grimm and The Blair Witch Project. The trees, both conifers and deciduous, grow tight against one another, with creepers draped around their trunks. The forest floor is a litter of fallen branches and great rotten logs, overgrown with feathery moss.



This is a crepuscular place on the brightest of days; under the October drizzle, it is all shadows and indistinct shapes.



To complicate matters further, compasses do not function correctly in the forest.



"Something magnetic in the lava rocks from the volcano," Oyamada said.



Nailed to a tree is a box containing handbills left by the police. "Just a moment please!" they beseech. "Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Don't keep your worries to yourself - please seek counselling." The police prowl around in a van in the woods, constantly on the lookout for suicides. They say that 48 people have been saved from carrying through their intentions.



Local police chief Minoru Kagami said: "We sometimes get letters saying, 'Thank you for saving me. Now I am doing my best to live'."



Most of those who succeed in killing themselves here do so by hanging, although some take pills and booze and, during the winter, there are those who simply lie down in the snow.



Why here, apart from the practical reason that it is an easy place to disappear? The answer goes a long way back.



In the 19th century, feudal Japan suffered bitter famines. Aokigahara was one of many places where poor families used to come and dispose of infant and elderly mouths which they could not feed by the simple means of leaving them out in the open to die.



Writer Seicho Matsumoto published a famous novel, dramatised on television, called The Pagoda of the Waves, in which a character comes to die in Aokigahara.



A notorious book called The Suicide Manual, which achieved alarmingly high sales a few years ago, recommended it as the perfect place to end it all.



In the car park, Buddhist monk Kyomyo Fukui provides another explanation.



"The spirits are calling people here to kill themselves - the spirits of the people who have committed suicide before," he said. He and 50 monks from his temple came for the first time to construct a temporary altar in the car park and to pray for the repose of the troubled spirits of Aokigahara.



For as long as recorded history, the area has been dotted with various places of worship, both conventional and unorthodox.



Aum Shinri Kyo, the crazed cult that released nerve gas on the Tokyo subway, built its headquarters nearby.



The great mountain is itself a giant deity of the indigenous Shinto cult; in the whole of Japan, there is absolutely nowhere that is more symbolically Japanese than Mt Fuji. And nothing is more symptomatic of Japan's present state of national health than suicide.



Finland and Hungary have higher suicide rates, but of the big industrialised countries no population is more prone to self-destruction than the Japanese. In 1998, the annual number exceeded 30,000 for the first time. Last year, it rose to 33,048.



The profile of the victims, and the timing of the suicide boom, corresponds with those of Japan's economic crisis, which began in the early 1990s and which has affected most of all the middle-aged and the middle-ranking whose corporations, small businesses and investments have been stricken by restructuring, bankruptcy and collapse.



Railway stations in Tokyo have taken to placing mirrors along platforms - the idea is that the sight of a person's reflection will prompt the would-be suicide to think again, pause, and save the transport companies a fortune in delays and clean-up costs. The ministries of Labour and Health and Welfare have asked for funds to be put aside for measures to combat suicide.



Everyone knows that the only reliable way to reduce the suicide rate is an economic recovery - and that even in boom times, the number of Japanese people who can find no alternative to taking their own lives is higher than any comparable country.



Until then they will continue to converge on the beautiful cone of Mount Fuji, and a lonely, twilight death in the Sea of Trees.



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