From time to time, Ittetsu Nemoto gets a group of suicidal people together to visit popular suicide spots, of which there are many in Japan. The best known is Aokigahara forest, the Sea of Trees, at the foot of Mt. Fuji. The forest became associated with suicide in the nineteen-sixties, after the publication of two novels by Seicho Matsumoto, and even more so after Wataru Tsurumi’s 1993 “Complete Manual of Suicide” declared it the perfect place to die. Because its trees grow so closely together that they block the wind, and because there are few animals or birds, the forest is unusually quiet. The Sea of Trees is large, fourteen square miles, so bodies can lie undiscovered for months; tourists photograph corpses and scavenge for abandoned possessions. Another common suicide destination is Tojinbo cliff, which overlooks the Sea of Japan. Visiting such a place turns out to be very different from picturing it. The sight of the sea from a cliff top can be a terrible thing.
At other times, Nemoto, a Buddhist priest, conducts death workshops for the suicidal at his temple. He tells attendees to imagine they’ve been given a diagnosis of cancer and have three months to live. He instructs them to write down what they want to do in those three months. Then he tells them to imagine they have one month left; then a week; then ten minutes. Most people start crying in the course of this exercise, Nemoto among them.
One man who came to a workshop had been talking to Nemoto for years about wanting to die. He was thirty-eight years old and had been institutionalized in a mental hospital off and on for a decade. During the writing exercise, he just sat and wept. When Nemoto came around to check on him, his paper was blank. The man explained that he had nothing to say in response to the questions because he had never considered them. All he had ever thought about was wanting to die; he had never thought about what he might want to do with his life. But if he had never really lived, how could he want to die? This insight proved oddly liberating. The man returned to his job as a machinist in a factory. Previously, he had been so averse to human company that he had been able to function only in certain limited capacities, but now he was able to speak to people, and he got a promotion. . . .