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Japan now has a 'loneliness minister,' but how will solitude be measured?

Minister for Promoting Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens Tetsushi Sakamoto, second from right, is seen holding a sign for the office of the minister for loneliness, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Feb. 19, 2021. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- While the Japanese government has established the new role of a minister for loneliness, and set about tackling isolation issues, setting up a standard for measuring individuals' levels of solitude is at the center of discussion.

    Although creating a scale of loneliness is directly linked with achieving the government's goals, many challenges exist, such as the question of how to measure such a subjective feeling. An expert said that a consciousness unique to Japanese society has also been presenting further challenges.

    Tetsushi Sakamoto, the minister for promoting the dynamic engagement of all citizens, who is also newly in charge of loneliness issues, raised the advancement of how the government understands "isolation" in Japan as one effort to initially address, in a meeting on loneliness which took place at the prime minister's office on March 12. He said, "It is essential that we get a handle on the actual nature of loneliness and isolation, and establish a plan-do-check-act cycle for related policy measures of each administrative field."

    However, he also said, "As a precondition to this, it is necessary to make certain adjustments on how to perceive loneliness and isolation." Exactly who should be regarded as a lonely and isolated person becomes a central question.

    It cannot be said that individuals who have a liking for solo activities, such as going to karaoke or camping out alone, are lonely or isolated. Sakamoto said, "Loneliness is a subjective emotion accompanied by feelings of forlornness," and he emphasized that loneliness is a negative feeling experienced by those who are isolated. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has expressed the intention to take measures to tackle "undesirable loneliness."

    Researchers, private firms, and foreign governments have already taken initiatives surrounding a loneliness scale. By establishing a solitude standard, it helps analyze what kind of other traits are seen in individuals who experience strong feelings of loneliness, which can be expected to help prevent people from falling into isolation.

    This file photo shows House of Representatives member Takako Suzuki who submitted a proposal regarding countermeasures against loneliness and isolation to the national government. (Mainichi)

    Takako Suzuki, a House of Representatives member belonging to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who proposed that the government engage in loneliness and isolation issues, said, "A prevention viewpoint is significant when taking countermeasures against loneliness and isolation. It is important that the expansion of a consultation system, which will become a safety net, and preventative measures are pushed forward together as one set."

    While the lawmaker set forth the need to establish a loneliness scale for taking preventative measures, she also said, "The government must not leave the job half-done." She has demanded a swift investigation on the current state of loneliness in the country, and claimed that "data which will serve as a standard is necessary for inspecting the effectiveness of measures."

    The UCLA Loneliness Scale is commonly used worldwide for measuring loneliness. Individuals are asked to select from among four responses on how often they agree with statements including "I lack companionship" and "I feel left out." Loneliness levels are indicated by the total score of points corresponding to the selected responses.

    Furthermore, the British government, which took the lead to appoint a minister for loneliness, has developed an original standard based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and the Japanese government also intends to move forward with discussion while using these overseas examples as a reference.

    However, there are many challenges in setting up a solitude scale. It appears that the breadth of the age range and diversity of other attributes of people whom the Japanese government envisions as targets in the initiative has also made it difficult to take a simple approach.

    Etsuko Tadaka, community and public health nursing professor at Hokkaido University's graduate school, has translated the UCLA Loneliness Scale into Japanese, and researched its credibility. She said, "The circumstances and environment differ among children who can't make friends, parents who raise children for the first time, and elderly people whose family members passed away before them. It's difficult to measure loneliness levels using the same scale, and I think it's necessary to create general groups, like at least dividing children and adults."

    Etsuko Tadaka, professor at Hokkaido University's graduate school, is shown in this file photo provided by her.

    Tadaka also pointed out that it is necessary to take note of Japan's customs and culture when creating and using a loneliness scale.

    For example, a direct question that asks individuals how often they feel lonely has been included in the solitude scale of the United Kingdom, but there seems to be room for further consideration on whether such a straightforward question will be effective in measuring loneliness in Japan.

    The professor said, "When asking individuals about their views, their own attitudes, etc. which are associated with social desirability, respondents tend to give an answer that will be viewed favorably, instead of their original answer, based on their own situation, possibly giving rise to bias. Such an issue may arise in connection with a word like 'loneliness,' which is not weakly linked with rules involving the relation between individuals and society."

    "It's important to acknowledge that loneliness is not just about having no one to go to for help, but also the absence of those who are concerned about that person, and is a problem faced by society that is beyond the control of the individual's efforts," said Tadaka. She points out the necessity to spread such awareness alongside creating a loneliness scale.

    (Japanese original by Shun Kawaguchi, Political News Department)

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