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.

‘The number of single households and ‘hikikomori’ — social recluses — has been increasing rapidly’

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.

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