The costs of lockdown across the globe have been steep, particularly on mental health. Japan has felt the effects particularly severely.

Japan appointed a “Minister of Loneliness” this month after the country’s suicide rate rose for the first time in 11 years.

Loneliness and social isolation has become a real issue in Japan and the rising suicide rates has prompted action.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has therefore appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto to oversee government policy regarding loneliness and isolation.

Sakamoto has been the minister in charge of dealing with Japan’s ageing population. He is also in charge of promoting regional revitalisation.

‘A rising trend’

He said: “I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people.”

In a news conference on February 12, Suga announced Sakamoto would be taking on the new role, according to the Japan Times.

He said: “Women are suffering from isolation more (than men are), and the number of suicides is on a rising trend,”

“I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively.”

Worrying stats

Sakamoto has said that he has plans to hold an emergency forum at the end of the month. He plans to hear concerns from people dealing with loneliness and isolation.

In October last year, more people died from suicide in Japan than had died from COVID-19 in the country by that point in 2020.

In the month of October,  there were 2,153 suicide deaths and 1,765 total virus deaths up to the end of October 2020, according to the Japanese National Police Agency.

Worryingly, October also saw the female suicide rate in Japan increase by more than 70% compared with the same month in the previous year.

‘Very, very unusual’

Preliminary figures released by Japan’s National Police Agency showed that in total, 20,919 people took their own lives in 2020. That is 750 more than in 2019.

Professor Michiko Ueda, one of Japan’s leading experts on suicide, says she has been shocked to see the rise in female suicides in Japan.

She said: “This pattern of female suicides is very, very unusual,” she tells me.

“I have never seen this much [of an] increase in my career as a researcher on this topic. The thing about the coronavirus pandemic is the industries hit most are industries staffed by women, such as tourism and retail and the food industries.”

“A lot of women are not married anymore,” she says.
“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. The number of job losses among non-permanent staff are just so, so large over the last eight months.”

Loneliness epidemic

But Japan’s loneliness epidemic is far from a new phenomenon.

The Japanese term ‘hikikomori’ refers to people who live in extreme isolation. The government have long discussed it as an issue.

In the past, loneliness has been linked to both mental and physical health problems. They include heart disease, dementia and eating disorders.

The UK was the first country to appoint a loneliness minister in 2018. The government created the role after a 2017 report revealed more than nine million Brits said they often or always felt lonely.

Little-known Conservative peer Baroness Diana Barran is now in charge of the position in the UK…

Should we be doing more to ward against loneliness?

Image via Alamy