Japan has appointed a "Minister of Loneliness" to take try and reduce loneliness and social isolation among its residents as the country deals with rising suicide rates, Japan Times reported.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto, who is already a minister in charge of dealing with Japan's declining birthrate and promoting regional revitalization, 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."
Loneliness has long been an issue in Japan, often discussed alongside "hikikomori," or people who live in extreme social isolation. People have worked to create far-ranging solutions to this issue: Engineers in Japan previously designed a robot to hold someone's hand when they're lonely and one man charges people to "do nothing" except keep them company.
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.
In October, more people died from suicide than had died from COVID-19 in Japan in all of 2020. There were 2,153 suicide deaths that month and 1,765 total virus deaths up to the end of October 2020, per the Japanese National Police Agency. (After a surge in new cases starting in December, Japan has now recorded 7,506 total coronavirus deaths as of February 22.) Studies show that loneliness has been linked to a higher risk of health issues like 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, told the BBC last week.
"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.
The United Kingdom was the first country to appoint a loneliness minister in 2018, after a 2017 report found that more than nine million people in the UK said they often or always felt lonely. But the role seems to not be a particularly desirable one, as the UK has gone through three loneliness ministers in three years. Australia has considered creating a similar position.