The Political Edge Bureau
February 23, Chandigarh
As the country struggles with increasing suicide rates, Japan has named a “Minister of Loneliness” to try to minimize loneliness and social alienation among its people, Tomohiro Osaki wrote for the Japan Times.
Tetsushi Sakamoto, who is already a minister in charge of coping with Japan’s decreasing birth rate and supporting regional revitalization, was chosen by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to oversee government policies to deal with loneliness and isolation, earlier this month.
Prime Minister Suga chose Sakamoto as his Minister for economic revitalization when he was elected in September 2020.
“Women are suffering from isolation more (than men are), and the number of suicides is on a rising trend,” Suga told Sakamoto on a February 12 news conference announcing the new role, according to the Japan Times. “I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively.”
In Japan, loneliness has long been an issue, sometimes addressed alongside “hikikomori,” or individuals living in intense social isolation. In Japan, engineers have previously built a robot to hold someone’s hand when they are lonely and one man charges people to “do nothing” but keep them company. People have been working to develop far-reaching solutions to this issue.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, with people more socially isolated than ever, Japan saw a rise in suicides for the first time in 11 years.
More people died from suicide in October than were killed by COVID-19 in Japan in all of 2020. According to the Japanese National Police Agency, there were 2,153 suicide deaths that month and 1,765 total virus fatalities by the end of October 2020.
(After a rise in new cases beginning in December, Japan has now recorded 7,506 cumulative deaths from coronavirus as of February 22.) Studies show that isolation is associated with a higher risk of health problems such as heart disease, dementia, and eating disorders.
Women in Japan, in particular, have contributed to the uptick in suicides. In October, 879 women died by suicide in Japan — a 70% increase compared to the same month in 2019.
More and more single women live alone in Japan, but many of them don’t have stable employment, Michiko Ueda, a Japanese professor who studies suicide in Japan.
A lot of women are not married anymore,” Ueda said. “They have to support their own lives and they don’t have permanent jobs. So, when something happens, of course, they are hit very, very hard.”
Japan’s new loneliness minister said that he plans to hold an emergency forum in late February to hear concerns from people dealing with loneliness and isolation.
“I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people,” Sakamoto said at the February 12 news conference.
In 2018, the United Kingdom was the first nation to name a minister of loneliness, after a 2017 survey found that more than nine million individuals in the United Kingdom said they felt lonely sometimes or often. But the position does not seem to be especially attractive, as the United Kingdom has gone through three ministers of loneliness in three years. Australia has considered establishing a role that is identical.