We can learn from Japan’s ‘Ministry for Loneliness’

Published March 1, 2021, 12:19 AM

by Manila Bulletin

Prime Minister  Yoshihide Suga of Japan has added a “Minister for Loneliness”  to his cabinet in the wake of a rise in suicides for the first time in 11 years. “The number of suicides is on a rising trend. I hope you will identify  problems and promote policy  measures comprehensively,” the prime minster told his appointee to the new position  —  Tetsushi  Sakamoto.

The number  of people committing suicide  rose in Japan for the first time in over a decade last year. There had been progress in combating  the high suicide rate but  the pandemic reversed the trend last year.  In 2020, Japan’s Ministry  of Health  and  and Welfare reported 20,019 suicides, compared to only 3,460 deaths from COVID-19 in the same period.

The suicides  in 2020 in Japan were due to many causes, foremost of which – 49 percent – were health issues, both mental and physical. Next in the list of causes were financial and poverty-related issues, 17  percent;   home and family-related issues, 15 percent; and work-related issues, 4 percent. The pandemic in 2020 must have been an important factor in all of these issues.

The pandemic spared no nation on earth in its spread last year, but it seems  it  has  not had as much effect on the suicide rate  in other countries as it has in Japan. . In the Philippines, a  report  from the World Health Organization said its local office had been receiving 30 to 35 calls a day reporting  cases of  depression in March-April-May, 2020, at the height of the pandemic in the country.

But the situation  did not go  further towards actual suicide cases.  This must be largely due to the strong influence of the Catholic Church on Filipinos and the church strongly condemns suicide as a mortal sin. There is  also  the  possibility that because suicide is frowned  upon  in Philippine  society, other causes of death, rather than suicide, are often reported.

In the ongoing pandemic,  South Korea has suffered the most deaths in   our part of the planet.  Worldwide,  the  nations that  have suffered the most from COVID-19 are the United States, India, Brazil, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

But  it is Japan which seems to have suffered most from a rise in suicides,  probably arising from the increased isolation suffered by its people and the resulting  loneliness, especially among  nation’s women.  Prime Minister Suga said,  “Women are suffering from isolation more than men  and  the number of suicides is on a rising trend.”

”I hope you  will identify the problems and promote policy measures comprehensively,” the prime minister told Minister Sakamoto, who is already in charge of combating the country’s falling birth rate and revitalizing regional economies.

The title  “minister of loneliness” may seem unusual for  a cabinet position,  but it  goes straight to what  the prime minister believes to be the root cause of the steep rise in suicide rates. We may not be as prone  to suicide in the Philippines because  of our social and religious background, but we should learn something as we watch Japan carry on with its  experiment with a “ministry for loneliness.”