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As suicides rise, Japan takes on the issue of loneliness

TOKYO >> Japan is tackling a pervasive problem that has again been thrust into the spotlight, thanks to the pandemic: loneliness.

With isolation tied to an array of social woes such as suicide, poverty and the “hikikomori” (social recluses) population, a new task force will investigate loneliness and its impact. The issue caught the attention of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who added a minister of loneliness to his Cabinet in February. He follows the example of the U.K., which created the position in 2018.

According to the National Police Agency, 20,919 people took their own lives in 2020, up 750 from the previous year. It marks the first increase in 11 years. The numbers reflect a rise in suicides among women and young people.

But Suga said people from all walks of life are feeling increasingly isolated in the age of COVID-19. “There are many kinds of loneliness” that need to be addressed, he said.

Multiple studies have shown the huge toll of loneliness. A 2018 report by health organization Cigna concluded that loneliness “has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”

What constitutes loneliness is tricky in Japan, where the term “kodoku” describes both loneliness and solitude, essentially lumping them together and casting the state of being alone in a positive light, even glorifying it, said communications specialist Junko Okamoto.

Best-selling books depict isolation as an exercise in independence, introspection and superiority, and the popular term “ohitorisama” (on your own) expresses approval of a person who shops, dines and travels alone.

Okamoto said the near-worship of solitude has contributed to Japanese society’s obliviousness to “the truly hopeless, excruciatingly painful nature of loneliness.”

Japan is notorious for “kodokushi” (lonely deaths), in which the body of the deceased goes undiscovered long after the person has died. A 2015 international survey showed 16% of Japanese seniors age 60 and older felt they had no one to turn to. It was the highest number globally.

Japanese men also grapple with a high level of social isolation. A 2005 survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed that Japan has the highest proportion of men who “rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues or others in social groups,” at nearly 17%, far exceeding the OECD average of about 6%.

This can be attributed to Japan’s notorious work culture.

“A generation of men brainwashed into working their butts off nonstop only have work to derive pleasure from, and base their identities on, and are often too busy to find themselves hobbies or new communities to be part of,” said Okamoto, author of “Sekaiichi Kodoku na Nihon no Ojisan” (“Japan’s Middle-aged Men — the Loneliest People in the World”).

Then there is the working population that lives alone.

A 2018 report pointed to pervasive isolation among single-person households, with no less than 76% saying they rarely or never communicate with neighbors.

Many live in urban areas and work from morning to night, then grab a few after-work drinks or dine out with co-workers or friends. But remote work curtails interaction with colleagues — often the only network for these singles — raising their risk of loneliness.

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