Japan's Growing Loneliness Issue
Coronavirus (COVID) has brought in a new meaning to isolation, and with-it increasing levels of loneliness. For Japan, however, the pandemic has only served to perpetuate the longstanding problems of isolation and loneliness.
This piece delves into two different types of solitude experiences arising in Japan, addresses how COVID has affected these, and concludes by considering what the new Minister of Loneliness role will do to address these phenomena.
For decades, Japan has slowly seen a rising epidemic in loneliness. In part this is caused by the growing levels of Hikikomori, a term coined in 1998 by psychologist Tamaki Saitō meaning ‘to pull inwards’, referring to both the phenomena and the individual affected. Hikikomori withdraw from society and remain in their homes (or bedrooms if they reside with family) for long periods of time, some stays spanning decades.
The Japanese Ministry of Health defined those affected as individuals who refuse to leave their homes to go to work or school, isolating themselves from society for a period of at least 6 months. Some retreat entirely, never leaving their homes from fear of societal interactions. Some, particularly those who live alone, may only leave their homes for bare necessities, such as for shopping. In many cases, hikikomori may be triggered by major stressors or trauma (short or long term) that can have significant health and social impacts.
In Japan, over 1 million people aged 15-64 are Hikikomori - isolating themselves from society and refusing to leave their homes
Various surveys have predicted that over 1 million people between 15-64 are Hikikomori in Japan. A 2015 Cabinet survey estimated 541,000 hikikomori are in the 15-39 age bracket, and a 2018 survey estimated there to be 613,000 hikikomori in the 40-64 bracket. Despite these figures, many leading researchers in the area predict the number could well be higher (with Saitō asserting it could be well into 2 million) given that many people prefer, by nature of being hikikomori, to stay hidden and therefore unaccounted.
While every hikikomori will have their own individual experience that causes them to retreat from society, the labour market has been a major contributor. For Japan, the 1990’s are often referred to as the ‘Lost Decade’ due to the recession. During this time, many people (particularly males) were either made redundant, forced into different lines of work, or were unable to secure work at all. Many students were forced into low paying jobs that provided little to no job security. Those who were unable to secure the roles expected of them hid away to conceal their ‘shame’, with some never re-emerging. Others worked endlessly; overworked, under-appreciated and bullied, they too retreated from society. This phenomenon triggered the introduction of the term hikikomori, describing those who, despite being mentally fit, had withdrawn from society.
Saitō notes that once a person falls into the hikikomori ‘system’, they begin to slowly withdraw from society and begin to lose their points of contact. This can also cause one’s family to withdraw, as in many cases Japanese parents feel an obligation to support their children and the shame of the situation prevents them from seeking professional help. Withdrawal of both individual and family can make it difficult for a person to return to society. This reality is often described as the ‘80-50 problem’ where both the elderly parent and the middle-aged child find themselves socially cut off, making them more prone to experiencing isolation and loneliness.
Kodokushi refers to the phenomena of ‘lonely deaths’, an occurrence mainly among the elderly who live and die alone, remaining undiscovered for lengthy periods of time. First defined in the 1980’s, it has slowly become an increasingly common occurrence. Where hikikomori mainly effects the younger and middle-aged generations, kodokushi largely effects the elderly. Psychologist Yuichi Hattori fears that a hikikomori lifestyle could lead to an increase in kodokushi style deaths. Having no-one to turn to, Hattori notes people may retreat inward out of shame, never seeking the help they require. The cycle sees people retreating from society and eventually dying alone, particularly if they outlive their parents and become elderly themselves.
Psychologists fear that the hikikomori lifestyle could lead to an increase in kodokushi - 'lonely deaths'
According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there were around 3,700 ‘unaccompanied deaths’ in 2013. In 2017, Tokyo alone saw 4,777 deaths with 10% having died over a month prior to being discovered. On a more broader scale, in 2015 it was reported that 34.4% of those over the age of 65 lived alone. In later studies, it was found that 15% of elderly people living alone only had one conversation a week. It’s predicted these figures will have increased substantially in recent years with growing loneliness and the COVID pandemic. An increasingly aging populating choosing to or being forced to live alone is resulting in more lonely deaths. Despite deaths increasing every year, there seems to be a lack of engagement and interest around the phenomena.
While there are many personal reasons people may end up living alone, like hikikomori there seems to be a common feature of one’s professional life impacting family and social connections. Before the 90’s recession, Japanese culture required a high demand in professional life resulting in many workers (specifically males) pursuing career growth over establishing family and friends. The fallen economy pushed them into early retirement or smaller roles with less social security. Pairing this with the fact that in Japanese culture people do not want to burden their families with ‘trivial’ matters, people are often prevented from seeking the help they desperately require out of shame. Turning to neighbours is also difficult too due to the lack of interaction.
Kodokushi has become so common that specialised companies have been formed to address the property left behind (deep cleaning belongings and stains in the residence of the deceased). The government has also set about preventative measures in the form of collaborating with water and electricity companies to detect when usage or payment ceases – but nothing on a personal scale to directly prevent such deaths from occurring. Both kodokushi and hikikomori affect demographics, with fewer births and an increasingly lonely, ageing population leading to the government worrying about Japan’s future.
There seemed to be an assumption that hikikomori are mentally better equipped to deal with the restrictive nature of COVID, and are often praised for their adherence to COVID rules. However, given that the phenomenon is still underdeveloped in terms of research and understanding, comparing it to the requirements of a pandemic undermine the substantial needs that those experiencing hikikomori have, particularly the help those who are slowly emerging from hikikomori require. It also creates a misunderstanding of what hikikomori is – reducing it to social distancing rather than full withdrawal from society as a response to the socio-economic standards of Japan undermines the significant physical and mental trauma many hikikomori experience. Their living is simplified to their ‘being good citizens’, making it harder for them to take paths to exiting a hikikomori state.
"reducing hikikomori to social distancing undermines the significant physical and mental trauma many of these people experience"
There is also fear that the pandemic could trigger people into long-term hikikomori, particularly as loneliness is increasing in many countries. Long term hikikomori could then result in kodokushi, especially for those already living alone or with elderly parents. For hikikomori who were slowly re-emerging in society, COVIDs impacts have resulted in both the fear of, and actual re-retreat into solitude. The assumption that these people are good citizens does not help support their re-entry into society after years, if not decades of isolation.
For the elderly, being encouraged to isolate prevents any social engagement, and their general inability to take advantage of the internet results in near total isolation from anything outside their homes. For those with little to no family or friends, kodokushi becomes more likely. The social and economic aftermath of both COVID isolation may be difficult to return from, particularly if it creates people who are difficult to reach by social services.
Minister of Loneliness
Japan has introduced a Minister of Loneliness, Tetsushi Sakamoto, to work towards alleviating loneliness and social isolation, which have increased as a consequence of the pandemic. The pandemic has seen an increase in suicide rates (particularly among females) in the previous year, undoing the work undertaken in the last decade. Sakamoto will work to address this, along with the various long term social isolation issues among Japanese citizens. The role aims to promote social interactions among people, thereby working towards eliminating experiences such as hikikomori and kodokushi.
Sakamoto began his role by considering how ‘isolation’ can be understood before introducing any policy measures. As well as understanding what ‘isolation’ is, consideration will also have to be given on who can be regarded as isolated, or lonely. Takako Suzuki, a House of Representatives member who initially requested the governments engagement with the issue, emphasised the need for both a safety net style consultation system and preventative measures being pushed together as one. She requested an investigation be conducted into the current state of loneliness, necessary to determine the effectiveness of measures in the future.
Sakamoto will primarily oversee different departments to address loneliness and establish a standard to measure levels of solitude. Although a breadth of ages experience solitude at some point in Japan, Professor Etsuko Tadaka observed that even environmental circumstances can affect experiences of loneliness. The phenomena cannot, therefore, be measured by one standard scale, and so various initiatives will be needed to address different groups. Japan’s customs and culture will also have to be considered when making any scale. Tadaka noted that whilst conducting research into loneliness is important (and having a strategy based on science is a must), raising awareness of issues in a society that still sees talking about mental health at large as taboo must go hand in hand with any scale being produced.
The UK was the first country to establish a Minister of Loneliness, and asJapan and the UK are two culturally different countries, it will be interesting to see from Japans research and findings how different communities are affected by loneliness and the various ways it can be prevented.
For more articles on issues beyond UK shores, head to our dedicated Foreign Affairs section.