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Japan appoints Minister for Loneliness to address increasing suicide rate among women

In one month, October, suicide rates among women in Japan were a whopping 70% more than what it was the same month in the previous year.

Japan appoints Minister for Loneliness to address increasing suicide rate among women
Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)

Content Warning: Suicide, suicide ideation

Japan appointed its first Minister for Loneliness this month after the suicide rate of women in the country went up for the first time in 11 years during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to CNN, recognizing the disturbing trend, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga launched a designated cabinet post to alleviate social isolation and tapped Tetsushi Sakamoto for the job. After taking over the newly created position on February 12, Sakamoto said in his inaugural press conference that Suga appointed him to address national matters "including the issue of the increasing women's suicide rate under the pandemic."



 

 

"Suga instructed me to examine the issue and put forward a comprehensive strategy, by coordinating with the related ministry," Sakamoto added. "I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people." According to BBC, although Japan used to have the highest suicide rate in the developed world, it saw great success in reducing suicide rates by around a third over the past decade. However, it has seen a disturbing reversal in the last few months with the female suicide rate surging nearly 15% in 2020. In one month, October, suicide rates among women were a whopping 70% more than what it was the same month in the previous year.



 

 

"This pattern of female suicides is very, very unusual," said Professor Michiko Ueda, one of Japan's leading experts on suicide. "I have never seen this much [of an] increase in my career as a researcher on this topic. The thing about the coronavirus pandemic is the industries hit most are industries staffed by women, such as tourism and retail and the food industries. 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. The number of job losses among non-permanent staff [is] just so, so large over the last eight months."



 

 

The Japanese government also created an "isolation/loneliness countermeasures office" within the cabinet on February 19 to address issues such as suicide and child poverty which have risen during the pandemic. According to Nikkei Asia, Sakamoto is expected to assemble a team dedicated to interagency communication and host an emergency forum with advocacy groups and other players as early as this month to identify top priorities. Sakamoto told reporters that he could coordinate with the health ministry on suicide prevention and with the agricultural ministry on food banks.



 

 

"We will work on a comprehensive approach to arrange a wide range of measures," he said. His other cabinet responsibilities also include regional revitalization and addressing Japan's falling birthrate. His appointment as the Minister for Loneliness comes after lawmakers from both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition called for efforts to alleviate loneliness among Japanese citizens. "We need to create a measure to assess involuntary isolation, so we can create policy based on objective data," said Yuichiro Tamaki, who leads the opposition Democratic Party for the People.



 

 

"In Japan, solitude can be seen as a virtue and something you are ultimately responsible for addressing yourself," said Junko Okamoto, president of consultancy Glocomm and an expert on social isolation. "The government needs to swiftly conduct foundational research and craft strategy based on scientific evidence. There is an understanding in the U.S. and Europe that the emotional toll of loneliness can lead to heart disease and numerous other conditions." Although Japan is yet to come up with specific measures to address the situation, it could follow in the footsteps of the U.K., which appointed a minister for loneliness and published a "Loneliness Strategy" in 2018.

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