Why are Japanese unhappy? Japanese society is facing acute societal problems. Birth rate and fertility rate are on the decline. More people are graying.
By Nazarul Islam
Japan is an economically developed country, and envy of the world. The people are flush with all necessary material comforts that technology has provided. However, the big question has remained: Do all these comforts make the Japanese happy? For an analyst who has dealt with the nuances of Japanese society closely for over four decades, the short answer is —no, absolutely not!
Now, another question arises: Why are Japanese unhappy? Japanese society is facing acute societal problems. Birth rate and fertility rate are on the decline. More people are graying. Social security burden on the government is increasing. Over 80,000 centenarians need government healthcare and other support, and the numbers are growing.
Women and men of marriageable age are either delaying marriage or simply not marrying at all. Even if they marry, they are unwilling to have kids as they are not prepared to sacrifice their freedom and profession. Rearing a child is a full-time job, for which they are not prepared. This has led to the dubious coinage of the acronym DINKS (double income no kids).
Amid these complexities, the impact of these on social behavior is worrying as many are not able to cope with the new challenges and unable to navigate through life. This has led to the ugly situation when more men and women are unable to cope with the new situation and resorting to short-cut routes to end their lives by committing suicides. This is the malady of a developed society which policy makers have failed to address.
This has raised the question: Is Japan a happy society? From all denominators, if one examines in depth, Japan is suffering from an acute social problem from which it is struggling to seek an answer. As the traditional family structure is dying fast and people, both men and women, are seeking their own independent space, the fabric of the Japanese family structure has come under serious threat, which has led to this situation.
Government measures to address this new situation may be laudable but have proved to be inadequate. For example, Abe’s Womenomics to harness the potential of women power in the wake of labor shortage yielded little result. The pandemic further added to the crisis as more and more lonely people were unable to adjust to the new life style and took resort to commit suicide to end the agony.
This time the government of Yoshihide Suga was awakened to this grave situation and appointed a minister of loneliness as suicides surged, thereby following the example of Britain to establish a Cabinet portfolio to battle loneliness. The surge was because of a large number of people ending their lives because of the pandemic due to the feeling of isolation.
Suga appointed Tetsushi Sakamoo as state minister in charge of coordinating measures to help those feeling isolated as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. For Sakamoto, it is an additional portfolio as he is already a minister dealing with Japan’s declining birthrates and promoting regional revitalization.
British Prime Minister Theresa May established the world’s first minister to combat loneliness in 2018 after realizing loneliness was the most serious public health issue. But this ministerial portfolio did not become popular as UK saw three loneliness ministers in three years. Australia too has been toying with the idea of creating a similar position but has not done so far.
In 2020 Japan’s suicide rates increased for the first time in 11 years, particularly among women. The Minister of Loneliness is tasked to address this big social problem. In October 2020, more people died from suicide than the total number of Covid-19 deaths up to that point. There were 2,153 suicide deaths but 1,765 virus deaths that month.
Earlier studies have shown that loneliness is linked to a higher risk of health issues like heart disease, dementia, and eating disorders. In October 2020 alone 879 women died by suicide—nearly 70 per cent increase compared to the same month in 2019. As attitudes towards marriage are changing among working women, more and more tend to remain single and live alone. Many who do not have permanent jobs worry about supporting themselves if they lose the jobs, adding to further stress. The pandemic period aggravated their vagaries.
The disturbing development is that more women in their 30s or younger are committing suicide. The pandemic prevented them from hanging out with friends to ease their stress. In August 2020, 40 women under the age of 20 took their own lives, an increase by 11 over August 2019. A total of 193 women in their 30s or younger committed suicide in August 2020, up by about 74 per cent from a year earlier. This also included teenage girls.
Loneliness has long been an issue in Japan, often discussed alongside “hikikomori”, or people who live in extreme social isolation and do not leave their homes, often for years, and meet solitary deaths.
People with interest in this issue have sought solutions but with little success. For example, engineers designed a robot to hold someone’s hand when they felt lonely. Sometimes people are engaged to “do nothing” except to give company.
Nakamoto’s tasks are challenging. He has to devise comprehensive measures cutting across ministry jurisdictions.
Because of changing life style, societal ties in general have become weaker. Non-profit organizations that are already working on issues related to loneliness are also likely to be partnered in this task. Japan has a history of suicides among school students and junior high students. The suicides among school students normally peak every year soon after the new session starts. Those who could not complete their holiday homework face taunts from friends who have completed theirs or are reprimanded by teachers.
In order to escape from such embarrassment and humiliation, Japanese seek ways to end their lives. The pandemic in 2020 that disrupted lifestyles aggravated the situation. Nakamoto’s task is to stem this disturbing situation. It would be interesting to see what policy measures he prefers to adopt in Japan!
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