News & Opinion | February 22, 2021 1:26 pm

Meet Japan’s New Minister of Loneliness

Tetsushi Sakamoto has been appointed to the new role in response to an uptick in suicides

Tetsushi Sakamoto
Tetsushi Sakamoto is Japan's new Minister of Loneliness.
CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Japan has a new Minister of Loneliness, a sadly necessary job with an unfortunately enviable name.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto to the new role, created in an attempt to reduce loneliness and social isolation among the country’s citizens amid rising suicide rates, the Japan Times reported. Loneliness has long been a problem in Japan, one that has been inevitably exacerbated thanks to the ongoing social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the nation saw suicide rates rise for the first time in 11 years, at times proving more lethal than the virus itself. According to Insider, the month of October was particularly deadly, with 2,153 suicide deaths that month alone exceeding the total number of COVID-19 deaths Japan had seen since the beginning of the pandemic, which at the time totaled 1,765. (As of February 22, Japan currently has recorded 7,506 total coronavirus deaths.)

The situation is particularly dire for women. In October, 879 women died by suicide, representing a 70 percent increase from the same month in 2019.

“Women are suffering from isolation more [than men are], and the number of suicides is on a rising trend,” the Prime Minister said on a February 12 news conference announcing Sakamoto’s new role as Minister of Loneliness.

Michiko Ueda, a Japanese professor who studies suicide in Japan, attributes the rise in suicide among women to financial insecurity, particularly among the growing number of unmarried women in the country. “A lot of women are not married anymore,” Ueda told the BBC last week. “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.”

Japan’s new Minister of Loneliness will be tasked with helping the nation’s citizens combat feelings of isolation, which residents will be encouraged to discuss during an emergency forum Sakamoto plans to hold later this month. “I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people,” Sakamoto said at the February 12 news conference.

Japan isn’t the first country to appoint a loneliness minister. The UK appointed its first Minister of Loneliness back in 2018. But while the job title may be enviable, it seems the role itself might be understandably undesirable; the UK has gone through three loneliness ministers in as many years.