Japan appoints 'minister of loneliness' to battle pandemic side effects

  • 13 Feb 2021

The number of people taking their own lives in Japan rose for the first time in over a decade last year as the pandemic reversed years of progress in combatting a stubbornly high suicide rate.

In rapidly ageing Japan, more people are dying alone and unnoticed. File photo taken in Tokyo, November 7, 2011. ( AFP )

The novel coronavirus pandemic and lockdown restrictions have left people feeling increasingly stressed and lonely, causing the Japanese government to take steps against rising suicide rates.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday launched a designated cabinet post to alleviate social isolation, Nikkei Asia reported.

Tetsushi Sakamoto will work as the coordinator for efforts across multiple ministries and agencies, it reported.

"Women especially are feeling more isolated and face increasing suicide rates," the prime minister told Sakamoto. "I'd like you to examine the issue and put forward a comprehensive strategy."

"I hope to promote activities that prevent loneliness and social isolation and protect the ties between people," Sakamoto told reporters following their meeting. 

His other cabinet responsibilities include regional revitalisation, as well as addressing Japan's falling birthrate, according to Nikkei Asia.

Sakamoto said he would coordinate with the health ministry on suicide prevention and with the agricultural ministry on food banks, for example. "We will work on a comprehensive approach to arrange a wide range of measures," he said.

Tetsushi Sakamoto, Japan's minister for promoting dynamic engagement of all citizens, regional revitalisation and measures for declining birthrates, attends a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, September 16, 2020.(Reuters)

Long-standing loneliness problem

In rapidly ageing Japan, more people are dying alone and unnoticed.

A deep-seated Japanese reluctance to interfere in the lives of others, even those living nearby, means that some of these people may go through their days without talking to anybody.

The number of people taking their own lives in Japan rose for the first time in over a decade last year, as the pandemic reversed years of progress in combatting a stubbornly high suicide rate.

Through the ages in Japan, suicide has been a way to avoid shame or dishonour.

Japan has long had the highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven advanced countries – though regionally South Korea registers higher figures.

But the government has worked in recent years to better support people with mental health needs.

READ MORE: Japan: A month’s suicides surpass total death toll of Covid-19

20,919 people died by suicide in 2020

Japan's health and welfare ministry said on January that 20,919 people died by suicide in 2020 according to preliminary data, up 3.7 percent from the previous year. That compares with 3,460 deaths from coronavirus in the same period.

It marks the first year-on-year rise in suicides in more than a decade, with women and children in particular taking their lives at higher rates.

Japan has seen a smaller coronavirus outbreak than some countries, avoiding the harsh lockdown measures put in place elsewhere, and a fall in suicides during the first half of 2020 raised hopes that the pandemic's impact might be limited.

But the figures began to rise in July after a first state of emergency was lifted in May, a pattern experts say tracks with data showing suicides often drop in the first phase of crises such as conflicts and natural disasters, before rising sharply.

"For suicide in Japan, the rise was a major event and I think it was a big turning point," said Michiko Ueda, an associate professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo who studies suicide in Japan.

"The coronavirus is definitely a major factor," she told AFP, warning "we cannot deny the possibility that figures will rise again this year".

Virus 'highlighted gender gap' 

Mental health experts around the world have warned that suicides could rise during the pandemic, driven by diverse factors including economic hardship, stress and family abuse.

Suicides increased in Japan during 2020 after a decade of declines, with the number of women committing suicide surging amid the emotional and financial stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic even as fewer men took their own lives.

READ MORE: Love in the time of corona: The good, the bad, and the lonely

In Japan, the rise is the first since 2009, in the wake of the global economic crisis, but it follows a different pattern from previous years.

"The coronavirus pandemic forced people into unusual circumstances," a health ministry official told AFP.

"In particular, problems experienced by women have been highlighted, which are thought to have led to suicides."

Suicides among men actually fell slightly from 2019, but over 14 percent more suicides were recorded among women.

While determining the causes of rising suicides is complicated, Ueda said likely factors included increasing unemployment for women and extra burdens at home, in a country where household responsibilities are often unevenly shared in families.

The pandemic disproportionately hit industries that employ many women, often on temporary contracts, including hospitality and hotels.

A survey released by public broadcaster Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) in December found 26 percent of female workers reported employment problems including layoffs since April, compared with 19 percent of men.

"The coronavirus has highlighted Japan's gender gap," added Yayo Okano, a professor of feminism at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

In a separate NHK poll, 28 percent of women reported spending more time on housework during the pandemic, compared with 19 percent of men, with at-home supervision of children, after schools closed, falling mostly to mothers.

"Household burdens on women have long been disproportionately heavy in Japan and their burdens have increased because of coronavirus," Okano told AFP.

'They don't know what to do' 

Rising suicides among children have also alarmed experts: more than 300 children in elementary, junior high and high school died by suicide in the eight months to November, up nearly 30 percent from the same month a year earlier.

"Students are feeling anxiety about their future," said Akiko Mura, a counsellor at the Tokyo Suicide Prevention Centre.

"They don't know what to do. They used to be able to release their stress by talking to their friends, but now they can't even go to karaoke."

Experts fear a series of high-profile celebrity suicides in Japan last year may also have triggered vulnerable people to consider taking their lives.

The number of suicides in Japan peaked at around 34,000 in 2003, but efforts since then to tackle the problem, including addressing deaths linked to overwork and introducing online counselling, had helped bring the numbers down.

Munetaka Kaneko, a counsellor at suicide prevention NGO Sotto, said the government now needed to make suicide response a key plank of its virus policy, with "prevention measures fit for the pandemic era".

"For some, the risks of suicide are far graver than those posed by the pandemic."

READ MORE: UN warns of global mental health crisis due to Covid-19 pandemic

Latest Covid-19 figures

In Asia, Japan registered 1,300 new confirmed Covid-19 cases and 63 new deaths on Friday, according to data compiled by the country's public broadcaster NHK.

The total number of infections stood at 413,219 and coronavirus-related fatalities rose to 6,867.

Of the Friday cases, 307 were reported in the prefecture of Tokyo – it was the sixth consecutive day that Tokyo saw fewer than 500 new infections.

However, Tokyo's healthcare system remains under pressure as a large proportion of new patients of Covid-19 are elderly citizens who are at greater risk of developing severe symptoms.

An advisory panel of medical experts to the Japanese government on Friday expressed concern about the spread of the mutant novel coronavirus, calling on high-risk areas to improve the efficiency of virus detection, and people with symptoms to take mandatory tests.

READ MORE: Covid-19 science roundup: Survivors at higher risk of psychiatric illness