Women and youth account for increase in suicides . . .
Japan’s Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide appointed Sakamoto Tetsushi to the newly-created Minister of Loneliness position earlier this month to combat rising suicide rates amid the pandemic. According to the National Police Agency, nearly 21,000 people committed suicide in 2020, an increase of 750 people over the previous year. This is the first rise in suicides in 11 years. Women and youth account for most of the increase. Minister Sakamoto will simultaneously continue his ministerial roles with responsibility for regional economic revitalization and addressing Japan’s falling birth rates. In addition, the Cabinet Office created a new task force last week to work across ministries to tackle the issue of loneliness and investigate its impact.
A sad lexicon . . .
Several Japanese words point to the depth and breadth of issues related to loneliness and suicide in the country, all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Karoshi, for example, is death by overwork. It has been reported as a problem since the 1970s, and in 2019, there were 1,940 karoshi deaths from heart attacks, strokes, or suicide. Hikikomori, a word used since the 1990s, describes people who have refused to leave home for six months or more. A 2016 Cabinet Office survey reported half a million hikikomori aged 15-39, while a 2019 survey identified an additional 610,000 aged 40-64. Kodokushi, or lonely deaths, refers to people who die inside their homes but are undiscovered for days or weeks.
Timely move as income inequality rises . . .
Despite the naming of these phenomena and the staggering numbers in Japan, no country holds a monopoly on loneliness, suicide, and mental health challenges. In 2018, the U.K. became the first country to appoint a Minister of Loneliness after a 2017 report claimed that nine million U.K. citizens felt lonely often or always. But the U.K. post has proved challenging; it has seen three ministers in as many years. Minister Sakamoto’s immediate next steps will be to develop a loneliness strategy following a forum with stakeholders later this month. With loneliness and other insecurities rising throughout the Asia Pacific amid the pandemic, regional actors could be looking to Japan for lessons learned from creating a specialized ministerial post.
- The Japan Times: As suicides rise amid the pandemic, Japan takes steps to tackle loneliness
- The New York Times: U.K. appoints a minister for loneliness
- Nikkei Asia: Japan appoints 'minister of loneliness' to help people home alone