Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has appointed a “minister of loneliness” to his cabinet in response to rising suicide rates in Japan during the coronavirus pandemic.
Japanese lawmaker Tetsushi Sakamoto, who is also in charge of addressing the country’s declining birth rate and strengthening regional economies, was appointed to take on the role, The Japan Times first reported Sunday. Japan’s government created the ministry role earlier this month, following the example of the U.K. after its government created a similar position in 2018.
The government also established a cross-agency task force Friday with the goal of combatting rising suicide rates, poverty and social isolation experienced during the coronavirus pandemic, The Japan Times reported.
The pandemic has awakened #Japan to the need to combat loneliness, marking a break with a recent near-worship of solitude that has made Japanese society rather oblivious to “the truly hopeless, excruciatingly painful nature of loneliness.” @japantimeshttps://t.co/XnZnEh5SKX
— Tomohiro Osaki (@jt_osaki) February 22, 2021
Preliminary data from Japan’s National Police Agency released Friday showed that 20,919 people committed suicide in 2020, the first time suicides have increased year-on-year in over a decade.
In contrast, less than 7,500 people have died from coronavirus in Japan according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Japan in particular has grappled with high levels of social isolation long before the pandemic emerged early last year. Social isolation and suicide in Japan can be partly attributed to the country’s notoriously long working hours and competitive corporate culture, according to The Japan Times. (RELATED: What Is A ‘Suicide Cluster,’ And Why Has COVID Increased Them?)
Single-person households and “super solo” culture have been on the rise in Japan, according to BBC, with survey data indicating that an overwhelming majority of Japanese people rarely interact with their neighbors and have nobody they could turn to for help in a time of need.
While loneliness may be an inevitable part of the human experience, health experts say the global rise in social isolation could have major public health drawbacks. Health organization Cigna found in a 2018 study that loneliness is associated with a higher risk of mortality and could lead to depression and cognitive decline.
“Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” Cigna chief medical officer Douglas Nemecek concluded.
Japan’s already-notable social isolation problem appears to have worsened this past year due to the pandemic, according to The Japan Times. Social restrictions such as lockdowns and remote work have dramatically limited in-person interactions and confined many Japanese people to their single-person households.
“The coronavirus pandemic, I think, has driven home to many singles the reality of how they don’t know anyone in their neighborhoods or have any local bars they can call their stomping grounds,” researcher Manjo Shimahara said.