Japan appoints ‘Minister of Loneliness’ after suicide rates increase for first time in 11 years

Tetsushi Sakamoto was appointed by PM Yoshihide earlier this month; in October, more people died from suicide than had died from COVID-19 in Japan in all of 2020

Japan appoints ‘Minister of Loneliness’ after suicide rates increase for first time in 11 years

Tetsushi Sakamoto. Reuters file

Tribune Web Desk

Chandigarh, February 23

Japan has appointed a “Minister of Loneliness” to take try and reduce loneliness and social isolation among its residents.

The decision has been taken by the government as the country is now dealing with rising suicide rates, Tomohiro Osaki reported for the Japan Times, Insider reported.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, earlier this month, appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto as the Minister of Loneliness to tackle the rising suicide rates for the first time in 11 years.

Sakamoto is already a minister in charge of dealing with Japan’s declining birthrate and promoting regional revitalisation, and will now also oversee government policies to deal with loneliness and isolation.

“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,” Sugo said while appointing Sakamoto as the Minister of Loneliness.

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.

A rise in suicides during the pandemic

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, the Insider further reported. 

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 per cent 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, adding: “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 he planned 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.

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