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Japan's 'minister of loneliness' in global spotlight as media seek interviews

Minister for Promoting Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens Tetsushi Sakamoto, center, 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 -- Japanese Cabinet member Tetsushi Sakamoto, who has been appointed Japan's first "minister of loneliness" to implement measures to prevent social isolation, has been interviewed in succession recently by media outlets from four countries including South Korea.

    The problem of loneliness and isolation, which has also been linked to suicides among young people, has grown increasingly serious amid the spread of the coronavirus, and it appears other countries have taken a particular interest in Japan's initiative to appoint a minister to tackle the issue.

    South Korea implemented a law in April to prevent and control solitary deaths, and in a news program aired on May 7, South Korean public broadcaster KBS reported on Japan's move to establish a minister of loneliness and isolation in February, while noting the existence of a similar post in the United Kingdom.

    "In Japan, where solitary deaths have been a social problem since the early 2000s, the perception that loneliness is not an issue restricted to a specific age group has become entrenched," the program reported. It noted that Japan had seen an increase in suicides among young women last year, and mentioned the country's establishment of a ministerial post and office to address the situation.

    Sakamoto, who also serves as Japan's Minister for Promoting Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens, commented, "The ministries (in Japan) were unsynchronized, so we set up an office for a person in charge of loneliness and isolation to serve as the control tower. We'll continue to work through June to assess the situation." In a news conference after the interview, Sakamoto commented, "South Korea is a neighboring country and it was an indication that they want to get a variety of information from Japan."

    Japan's post of minister in charge of loneliness and isolation was set up at the instruction of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, to respond to the increase in suicides amid the spread of the coronavirus and to respond to child poverty and other such issues. The minister is in charge of coordinating measures that had previously been vertically divided between the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, among other bodies.

    Globally, it is rare for the issue of loneliness and isolation to come under focus as a national policy. According to the government, Japan is the second country to establish such a minister, following Britain in 2018.

    Ahead of the South Korean report, Sakamoto was interviewed in March by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper published by the Government of Russia, followed by the Spanish paper El Pais in April. In his news conference, Sakamoto said that the Russian paper had asked him why a minister had been appointed and what loneliness was, and he noted that the newspaper was "very interested" in the issue. He recalled, "I was asked whether teaching people how to become happy, rather than focusing on whether they had a partner, should take priority. I got the impression that the ways of thinking about loneliness and the related concepts may be slightly different."

    Regarding his interview with the Spanish paper, he emphasized, "I felt anew that Japan's policies against loneliness and isolation are gathering attention as the world suffers due to the coronavirus. I'd like to think about how Japan can deliver its message so that its countermeasures become an example for the world to follow."

    Sakamoto was additionally interviewed by the American media outlet Vice in April. He revealed he was asked about women's employment, suicide and social burdens, and said that the report was due to appear online in the near future.

    Under the Japanese government's guidelines for economic and fiscal management, known as the "big-boned policy," set to be established this summer, the government will include countermeasures against loneliness and isolation.

    (Japanese original by Shun Kawaguchi, Political News Department)

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