The Ministry of Loneliness, Japan’s Answer to a Worrying Social Trend | Nathan Wilson


In a follow up to a previous article, which examines the unforeseen societal effects that the Coronavirus Pandemic has brought about onto young people from around the world. This being that most young people are living with their parents for the first time since World War Two, then living away from home. Ultimately, examining the social implications this will have for future generations.  

As such, it is important to explore other social trends that have increased since the start of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Tetsushi Sakamoto, is probably not a name you have ever heard of, and his job is also probably something you had never even considered would even be possible. Mr Sakamoto is Japan’s first Minister of Loneliness (MoL), a sad but much needed role within Japan’s ever increasing ageing and lonely society.

As noted back in February this year, with a lack of social gatherings during the Coronavirus Pandemic, many people have become increasingly lonely and worried about their future. This Pandemic connected isolation has been thought to have caused a massive increase in Japanese suicides. As “Suicide rates in Japan have jumped in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among women and children”, according to the New York Post

This is not a unique event though within Japanese (nor East Asia) history, with a “research report from 2009 estimates that the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998 led to over 10,000 extra suicides in Japan, Hong Kong and Korea”.

Further research has shown during the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic that “health ministry data from November 2016 to October 2020, found the child suicide rate spiked 49 percent in the second wave, corresponding to the period after a nationwide school closure”

Upon recognising the nature of this major societal problem, then Japanese Prime Minister Suga, brought in the first specific role to deal with said issue. It is hoped that MoL Sakamoto will work as a facilitator for inter-ministry work between departments, to tackle such societal problems. 

Alongside this, Sakamoto it is hoped will use the MoL as a means of creating a team to deal with increasing suicide rates and social isolation, with Suga telling Sakamoto that “I’d like you to examine the issue and put forward a comprehensive strategy”. From which, Sakamoto telling reporters following their meeting that “I hope to promote activities that prevent loneliness and social isolation and protect the ties between people,”. Besides this new role, Sakamoto’s issues to concentrate on come in the form of Japan’s declining birth rate. This is according to Asia Nikkei’s own reporting. 

What has often been overlooked is the fact that the UK itself, has also its own form of MoL as of 2018. This started out of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which aimed to address the UK’s own problems with loneliness. This was in response to the murder of Jo Cox in 2016, by Thomas Muir (A Neo-Nazi extremist) in West Yorkshire. 

It is often the case that isolation can be made worse during disasters, which can be both natural and manmade. Continuing with Japan, take these three disasters: Hanshin earthquake (1995), Asian Financial Crisis (1997) and the Fukushima earthquake/ tsunami (2011). The aftermath of these events led to many older Japanese citizens being moved into temporary accommodation with them later dying alone. 

It is feared that the Coronavirus Pandemic will have only increased the pre-existing problems within the nation. The nature of a solitary passing, is called Kodukushi and is a major public concern within the nation. With the pandemic ensuring that many people will only stay home, and an aging society will sadly only go in one direction. The act of Kodokushi that made national news was in 2000, when the body of an elderly man was found three years after his death. His monthly rent and bills were being withdrawn automatically and only after his bank account ran out was his corpse found. When his corpse was found, it had been eaten away by maggots and insects, according to The New York Post

The result of this, one of the most interesting finds, is that technology could be helping to increase this sense of loneliness, amongst both old and young alike. 

Technology’s Double-Edged Sword

In a fantastic article by Sanat Rao, which can be found here, explores the issues of whether or not technology is causing or curing loneliness. 

It has been hoped that technology would possibly bridge the gap between worlds. We can call from nearly anywhere on the planet to anyone, and yet for some technology has only made the problems worse. For younger generations, the closed schools and offices have meant less time physically spent with work colleagues and friends. This is not withstanding the possible economic uncertainty that has underpinned the Coronavirus Pandemic. For young people, this reliance on technology has been merely filling the gaps for what they are missing outside of their real day-day world. With them being constantly reminded of what is happening outside, while you are stuck inside only further entrenching that sense of loneliness. 

However, older people struggle too. Although, a major stereotype is that older generations are useless with technology, the point can still stand as a good rule of thumb. With a massively ageing society, like the one seen in Japan, if you have a massive percentage of your population who are illiterate with certain forms of technology, the idea that they themselves will also become lonely makes sense too, en masse. As such technology can further entrench these feelings of loneliness within Japanese society. 

Overall, the Japanese government has believed all of this has contributed to the dramatic increase in suicides, with them increasing by “750 to 20,919 in 2020, according to preliminary data from the police and the health ministry. This is the first increase since 2009, just after the global financial crisis”. However, as suicides among men continued to decrease for the eleventh year in a row, suicides amongst women rose significantly to “6,976”. This is not including a “total of 440 elementary, middle and high school students had also died by suicide as of November, the highest number since 1980”, according to Asia Nikkei

However, as a result the Japanese government has not truly come up with a solution to this ongoing situation, it would seem. Alongside this, if we go back to the UK briefly, study into the effects of loneliness by the New Economic Foundations, show a very similar picture to that of Japan. The “research finds that loneliness experienced in the UK represents a significant cost to UK employers, both via its impacts on the health of employees and those they care for, and via its impacts on employee wellbeing and thus on productivity and staff turnover”. With this producing overall, “a total cost to UK employers from loneliness of £2.5 billion per year, which includes £2.1 billion to employers in the private sector”.

As such, the UK has started including topics like loneliness within their own government surveys and plans to work with “local governments and volunteer organizations to assist at-risk groups like the youth and the unemployed”. This is not to mention that comparable studies have shown that at minimum within the UK that “13% of the population felt alone, and that disconnected communities may be costing the British economy 32 billion pounds ($44 billion) a year”. This is according to the New Economic Foundations

One point that is often overlooked, is the idea of what loneliness means for different societies and to improve our understanding of the topic. This should be something governments from around the world should investigate and research more closely if we are going to get a better understanding of the matters at hand. Western perspectives on such matters can often not see more nuanced cultural differences in approaching such matters. 

In conclusion, the Coronavirus Pandemic has brought about lots of different changes to the daily lives of billions of individuals. It has exacerbated continuing trends within ageing nations, most notably in Japan. It remains too soon to say if Japan’s MoL or even if the UK’s will be a success. What does remain clear is the key social trend within ageing societies and the direct feeling of loneliness, with the long-term societal health (both physical and mental) to be needing further examination. Whatever happens, what does remain pertinent is the need to generate a cultural understanding within the UK (and other nations by extension) towards how we honestly view the topic of loneliness and what it really says about us as a nation but also as a society. 

In a follow up to this sense of loneliness, I will explore how social media makes one lonely (for a self-confessed non-user of it, looking from the outside) and why twitter is magnetic for ill people. 


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