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Editorial: Japan needs solid policy to combat plague of loneliness, social isolation

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a direct hit to many people's daily lives, and loneliness and isolation are emerging as serious problems.

    More than 100,000 people in Japan have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, and there has been a sudden spike in consultations related to economic hardship. 2020 also saw Japan's first increase in deaths by suicide in 11 years.

    The government has set up a new policy office in the Cabinet Secretariat to handle these issues. However, just bunching together all the related measures being implemented by government ministries and agencies is meaningless. We call on the government to take effective action.

    First, authorities must get a concrete idea of the scale of loneliness and social isolation in Japan, whether from being out of work, losing a close family member, or some other cause. To do that, it is important to strengthen connections with citizens' groups and other organizations tackling the problem on the ground. Many of these groups have had real success with creating spaces for children, consultation services for women, and providing meals to the elderly or people who have fallen on hard times.

    Looking at Japan's suicide figures, the increase among people in their 20s and younger is especially startling. There are some nonprofit organizations providing social media-based advice services; a method due some consideration.

    Japan's most vulnerable people, including the elderly, are also at greater risk of becoming isolated. That was true even before the coronavirus crisis. Behind it is the country's aging society, falling birth rate and gradual depopulation, as well as changes in lifestyles that have made social bonds more tenuous.

    Furthermore, recent years have witnessed the emergence of the so-called "80/50 problem" -- parents in their 80s falling into poverty taking care of "hikikomori" shut-in children now in their 50s. Destitute single-parent households have also become a serious issue. The conditions leading to loneliness and social isolation are varied. And to address this, the government must draw up a comprehensive basic plan and put it into action over the long haul.

    But society itself must change as well.

    It is currently fashionable to emphasize self-help and self-reliance. But this has resulted in many cases of people in need hesitating to apply for welfare or other assistance out of fears of social disapproval or discrimination. We need to create an environment that allows isolated, lonely people to say out loud, "I'm in pain," and "Please help me."

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's stated ideal society is based on "self-help, mutual assistance, and public assistance," though he puts the most emphasis on the "self-help" part of the equation. But "self-help" cannot solve loneliness and isolation. Public assistance needs to be expanded, and quickly.

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