Japan has appointed a minister of loneliness amidst a global pandemic and a rise in suicide. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tapped minister Tetsushi Sakamoto, who is also in charge of combating a declining birth rate and reviving regional economies, for the new post at a Feb. 12 press conference, reports Insider. He'll be in charge of coming up with ways to identify and address "many kinds of loneliness," per the Japan Times. Suga has said women, older people, and university students attending classes remotely are feeling increasingly isolated amid the pandemic. Japanese men already report a high level of social isolation due in part to an emphasis on work life. And a 2018 Cigna report found loneliness "has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity," per the Times.
Some 20,919 people committed suicide in 2020, up 750 from 2019, for the first year-on-year increase in 11 years. More people died from suicide in Japan in the month of October (2,153, including 879 women) than had died of COVID-19 in all of 2020 up to that point (1,765), per Insider. Loneliness is a particular concern in Japanese society because of its near-worship of "kodoku"—a word meaning both solitude and loneliness. By stressing only the positive aspects of solitude, like independence, "the truly hopeless, excruciatingly painful nature" is ignored, one expert tells the Times. "Therefore, one of the issues going forward will be how the Japanese government will define circumstances under which one is recognized as struggling with loneliness and therefore in need of help," the outlet reports. (The UK has a minister of loneliness, too.)