The lack of social contact in Japan during the pandemic has led to a spike in suicides. To tackle this situation, the Japanese government, following the example of the United Kingdom, has appointed a Minister of Loneliness. In 2020, the Asian country recorded 21,919 suicides, of which 479 were schoolchildren and 6,976 were women. It marked the first rise in 11 years.
The new Minister of Loneliness, Tetsushi Sakamoto, will combine his job with that of Minister of Revitalization of the Regions, and will coordinate an inter-ministerial strategy to address a phenomenon aggravated by the declining birth rate and overcrowding in cities.
According to the digital magazine Nikkei Asia, Japanese measures to help single people are expected to follow the path of the strategy of the United Kingdom, which created in January 2018 the first department (in its case a secretary of state) to fight a social epidemic affecting some nine million Britons.
For Junko Okamoto, author of the book Sekai ichi kodoku na Nihon no ojisan (The loneliest in the world: middle-aged Japanese men), one of the first challenges for the new ministry will be to compile statistics on a condition that few Japanese recognize as a problem. “Many people are lonely, but they refuse to accept it. It’s a stigma,” she says in a telephone interview.
This expert notes that the Japanese “reject the negative connotation of loneliness,” and stresses that for the average Japanese, resilience in the face of adversity is a duty, and loneliness is a challenge that is taken on without fuss.
In a report entitled Japan Should Have a Minister for Lonely People, the Mizuho Research Institute (MRI) indicated that by 2040, 40% of Japanese households will be single-person households.
Although telecommuting has generated an incipient exodus to the countryside, Tokyo is increasingly advertising new apartments for sale to single people. Loners of all ages have become a desirable consumer category, and literature praising solitude is a rich vein that far outstrips the sales of critical books like Okamoto’s.
Supermarkets sell single servings of everything, and many restaurants use the term “ohitori-sama” (honorable sir alone; the term also serves in the feminine) to offer tables with single seating and good views, but located out of the visual angle of couples and groups at dinnertime.
One of the longest-running TV food shows is called Solitary Gourmet, and consists of a monologue recited by a furniture salesman who always finds a good restaurant in Tokyo to eat alone.
The increase in deaths of lonely elderly people who are found days, or sometimes months, after they have passed away, has led to services specializing in cleaning rooms that are buried under mountains of garbage or stained with bodily fluids.
To show a less visually disturbing reality than photographs might offer, an employee of one such company, Miyu Kojima, began creating detailed miniatures of the rooms after the corpse was removed. Her models were catalogued in a book entitled Toki ga tomatta heya (The Room of Stopped Time), which many readers have interpreted as a warning of the latent risk of dying alone.
Although the Japanese government does not publish statistics on lone deaths, the NGO Association for Taking Measures to Prevent Lone Death in Japan, estimates that in 2020 a total of 4,448 people died alone. Fourteen percent were found between one and three months after their death.