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Japan: 'Minister of loneliness' tackles mental health crisis

April 23, 2021

Increasing social and economic isolation is causing Japan's suicide rate to climb, with working women and single mothers most at risk. The newly appointed "minister of loneliness" plans to alleviate this phenomenon.

Man looks out his bedroom window in Japan
'The number of single households and 'hikikomori' — social recluses — has been increasing rapidly'Image: SWR

Japan has welcomed the appointment of its first minister tasked specifically with combating the country's loneliness and isolation crisis that has exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to worrying figures on suicide and social withdrawal, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assigned 71-year-old Tetsushi Sakamoto to the newly created post in February.

Many health professionals hailed the move, as Japan sees mental health decline among the elderly, working women, part-time workers and the unemployed.

But Sakamoto has a huge task on his hands.

A long-serving member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the new minister of loneliness said Japan would introduce policy measures to alleviate social isolation.

"It is essential that we get a firm understanding of the actual nature of loneliness and isolation and then establish a system of planning, checking and acting for related policy measures in each related administrative field," Sakamoto said during a meeting of the new ministry in March.

Reintegrating the isolated

Sakamoto said the very first task is to identify who are already isolated or lonely as well as those at risk of being cut off from society.

Other countries, such as the UK, have similarly appointed senior officials tasked with integrating socially isolated people back into society and Sakamoto said Japan hopes to learn from those countries' experiences.

Vickie Skorji, director of the Tokyo-based TELL Lifeline, applauded the initiative as a "positive first step" — but warns there remains a great deal of work to do.

"Certain groups in Japanese society have been impacted in a more adverse way than others as a result of the pandemic, which has made a lot more people feel isolated," she told DW.

Economic woes take toll on mental health

Japan has imposed a series of nationwide and localized state of emergency orders since the pandemic first broke out more than a year ago. The national government is expected to announce another state of emergency for Japan's two largest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, in the coming days.

Authorities are calling on restaurants and bars to close down before 8 p.m., while cinemas and karaoke bars operate on restricted hours and companies are encouraged to have employees work from home.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been furloughed from their jobs, been put on reduced hours or simply laid off. Students have also reported losing part-time work and worry about paying for their university studies.

Women hit hardest

Those most at risk of income adversity are part-time workers in the entertainment, travel and hospitality industries and women, who are typically in less well-paid jobs in the service sector.

Skorji said women have been particularly hard-hit by the impacts of the pandemic.

"It is particularly worrying to see suicide numbers rising among women, many of whom have lost their part-time jobs and therefore their incomes and often have an increased workload in the home or are having to take care of elderly relatives," Skorji said.

"We are especially seeing single mothers not coping well with these circumstances," she added.

In 2010, Japan reported 31,600 suicides, a figure that had been brought down to 20,169 in 2019. In 2020, the number bounced back for the first time in 11 years, reaching 20,919 deaths, according to Health Ministry data.

Skorji said mental health care is not available under Japan's national health scheme and is in need of "better resources and support for those in need … on multiple levels."

"At least they are looking at the problem now, and that has to be a good first step," she said.

'Just a catchy title'

Makoto Watanabe, a communications professor at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, warns that men struggling to obtain stable employment are also at risk of being socially marginalized, but that this is nothing new in Japan.

"There is a 'lost generation' of thousands of 40- and 50-something men, primarily, who could not get a good job when they left school because the economy was bad and they have just stayed at home ever since," he told DW.

"The number of single households and 'hikikomori' — social recluses — has been increasing rapidly for many years and the government should have recognized this far earlier," he added.

Watanabe said better support systems must be put in place to first prevent more people from succumbing to isolation during the pandemic and then reintegrate them back into society. But he is not entirely confident that the new ministry of loneliness has the tools to achieve this goal.

"I worry that it's just a catchy title with little real experience or knowhow to be able to genuinely help those in need," Watanabe said.

"We need to rebuild networks and support systems in our society — but it was clear 30 years ago that Japan was going to have a problem with isolation and loneliness in society, so why was nothing done then?" he said.

"This is a good idea, but my feeling is that it comes too late and is mostly made up of vague promises that will be impossible to effectively put into practice."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea