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Japan appoints Minister of Loneliness after suicide rate rises for first time in 11 years 

Japan has appointed its first Minister of Loneliness after suicide rates rose for the first time in 11 years.

Following the example of a similar appointment in the UK in 2018, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed minister Tetsushi Sakamoto to the role earlier this month.

Suga’s administration considers the issue to be an urgent, with the loneliness amongst Japan’s population being put into the spotlight again due to the pandemic.

Isolation is seen as the cause of a number of other social issues, such as suicide, poverty and social reclusiveness. 

Preliminary figures released by Japan’s National Police Agency showed that 20,919 people took their own lives in 2020 – 750 more than in 2019. 

Japan’s cabinet office also established a task force on Friday that will seek to address the issue of loneliness under the jurisdiction of a range of ministries, and to investigate its impact.

Sakamoto – who is also in charge of tackling the nation’s falling birth rate and revitalising struggling regional economics – said he hopes to ‘carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people.’

In October, Japan saw more people die from suicide than had died from Covid-19 in all of 2020, the data shows.

There were 2,153 deaths from suicide in October alone, while Japan had seen 1,765 coronavirus-related deaths by the end of October 2020 for the whole year.

As of February 22, 2021, 7,541 people have died from Covid-19 in Japan since the start of the pandemic, still far fewer the number lost to suicide in 2020. 

The increase marks the fires year-on-year rise in 11 years, and is largely attributed to a surge in suicides among women and young people, according to the Japan Times.

This has been linked to the increasing number of single women living alone in Japan, many of whom don’t have stable employment.

Speaking to the BBC last week, Michiko Ueda, a Japanese professor who studies suicide in Japan, said ‘A lot of women are not married anymore.

‘They have to support their own lives and they don’t have permanent jobs. So, when something happens, of course, they are hit very, very hard.’ 

In October, 879 women died by suicide in Japan – 70 percent more than in the same month in 2019. 

Pictured: People wearing protective masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walk at a pedestrian crossing Monday, February 22 in Tokyo, Japan

‘Women are suffering from isolation more (than men are), and the number of suicides is on a rising trend,’ Suga said to his new appointee during a press conference on February 12, when he announced the new role.

‘I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively.’

While the concern is around the rising numbers in specific groups, Suga was clear that the issue effects people from all parts of society.

He also highlighted elderly people stuck at home and university students currently unable to attend classes in person due to pandemic restrictions.

‘There are many kinds of loneliness’ that need to be addressed, Japan’s Prime Minister – who has been in office since September 2020 – said.

Japan’s new loneliness minister said that he intends to hold an emergency forum later in February to hear concerns from people who are dealing with loneliness.

‘I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people,’ he said, following the announcement of his appointment. 

Japan has long faced issues of loneliness among its population, with the term ‘hikikomori,’ meaning people who live in extreme isolation, often being discussed alongside the issue.

A range of solutions have been worked on, including a robot designed by engineers to hold someone’s hand when they are lonely.

Loneliness has been linked to a range of health problems, including heart disease, dementia and eating disorders.

In Britain, loneliness is defined as ‘a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship.’

While the country was the first to appoint a loneliness minister in 2018 – after a 2017 report found more than nine million people in the UK said they often or always felt lonely – the role does seem particularly desirable – with three people holding the position since its inception.  

Japan is currently in a state of emergency due to the coronavirus, that was extended until March 7 by Prime Minister Suga.

The restriction’s imposed by the state of emergency are significantly looser than others seen around the world, particularly in Europe.

The measures call for more people to work from home and for bars and restaurants to close after 8 p.m.  

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