Tetsushi Sakamoto is Japan’s first Minister of Loneliness. This new cabinet post is an acknowledgment that loneliness, exacerbated by pandemic-related isolation and stress, is a serious issue.
In October 2020 alone, Japan recorded 2153 deaths due to suicide; by contrast, the total number of people who had died from coronavirus in the country up till then was 1765. When announcing the new Ministry, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga commented that women were at higher risk. This is interesting since the “gender paradox in suicide” is a known occurrence, wherein men’s attempts are likelier to be completed even though women may have more ideation or a higher number of attempts.
Three years ago, when the U.K. announced its Ministry for Loneliness, I wrote in this column about how loneliness is interlinked with structural oppressions, even though people across positionalities experience it. I wrote: “In order to address loneliness, then, we must address everything.”
I learned something I hadn’t known then about the U.K.’s Ministry. Its creation was based on the findings of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which was established by an MP who was murdered soon after. Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist who presumably opposed her beliefs, which favoured refugee rights and other humanitarian concerns. Her involvement with the issue of loneliness was probably an extension of her compassionate worldview.
Maybe Cox’s killer is lonely as he serves out his life sentence without parole. Or maybe he had already been so desolate in his life that he found comfort in a supremacist philosophy.
Since its inception, the U.K.’s Ministry for Loneliness has had much reshuffling. It cannot be simple work, dealing with an intangible element that dominates so many lives. While the Ministry has initiated various campaigns and awarded grants, there is scarce information online about what it has been doing during the pandemic. But there is a video dated March 2020 with a small selection of recordings of calls to them. The “loneliness epidemic” preceded the pandemic. Japan’s decision to address this formally is important, and will hopefully create strategies that can be employed widely.
Hopefully. Loneliness is a profoundly subjective experience, even if vast swathes of a population self-identify as lonely, or other supporting data indicates this malaise at large even if self-identification is not reported. I like the idea of such Ministries mainly because they can help destigmatise that self-identification.
Can I help with that too? I am a deeply lonely person, and I always have been. I’ve been alone on most of the best and worst days of my life. My skin hunger was so bad this month that I cried once from needing to be held. My circumstances, my history and my choices may be unique, but my loneliness is not. Yet I am grateful every single day to not be in denial about this essential aspect of my being. Denial leads one into unhappy relationships, into being pawned by sinister ideologies, into transient gratifications and their inherent risks. In naming myself as lonely, I hold myself safely and wholly. I honour the truth of my heart, and I find ways to soothe it without distraction, without deceit.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 25th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.