On the 3rd of September, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced his resignation and that he would not run for re-election to the surprise of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its opposition.

The former Chief Cabinet Secretary assumed office in August of 2020 when then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned due to health concerns and has since been leading Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Japan’s leader, PM Yoshihide Suga has mostly pursued interests in foreign relations and COVID-19 response. For instance, he visited Indonesia and President Jokowi in October last year to aid Indonesia’s pandemic situation and deepen cooperation towards a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, highlighting tensions between the US and China and in the South-China Sea.

In contrast, the Prime Minister’s domestic policies towards the pandemic are not without criticism. The combination of approving the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, discounts on domestic travel to counter economic deficits, and a relatively delayed state of emergency declaration in Tokyo has caused his cabinet’s approval rating to fluctuate. On the day he announced his resignation, the approval rating was reported to be 34% according to a recent Nikkei poll.

However, among PM Yoshihide Suga’s decrees was a very unprecedented decision. That is, the establishment of a ‘Ministry of Loneliness’ (one of the first in the world) and the appointment of its first Minister Tetsushi Sakamoto. Formed in February 2021, the Loneliness Minister aims to guide government efforts on tackling mental health issues, loneliness and isolation as well as suicide, all of which are worsening in Japan due to the pandemic.

It is no surprise that COVID-19 has affected nations worldwide. Besides health and economic impacts, its impact on our psychology and mental wellbeing is significant yet easily overlooked. Especially in Japan, the consequent feelings of loneliness and isolation due to quarantine may have worsened another social phenomenon, that is hikikomori.

Hikikomori or acute social withdrawal is a tendency between lonely people in Japan to isolate themselves from society for long periods of time. Such recluse lifestyles often result in mental health problems, depression and even suicide. Though hikikomori has existed before COVID-19, the pandemic is forcing a similar lonely lifestyle on more people today.

This is a big issue in Japan and is at the background of its high suicide rate. Japan’s suicide rate has actually been steadily dropping since 2010. Nevertheless in 2018, Japan’s latest report of 14.7 suicides out of one thousand people still marked it as one of the most suicidal countries within the OECD and the G7 nations.

Though Japan’s suicide rate has been falling, trends among suicide victims have been shifting during the pandemic. Loneliness Minister Tetsushi Sakamoto claimed, “Women are suffering from isolation more (than men are), and the number of suicides is on a rising trend. I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively.”

Japanese women’s increasing vulnerability to suicide amidst COVID-19 may be linked to the recluse lifestyle that quarantine imposes on many of them. Quarantine affects people severely, especially financially and in their capacity to work. In Japan women mostly have jobs in the retail and service sectors, which are the most impacted during lockdown.

Considering that in Japan one’s job is a large part of their identity due to job hunting and company culture, being unable to work is very harmful especially to women. Employment is not merely a means to financial security in Japan but is also a source of self-esteem, social identity, structured time and even social networks.

So, when a sector with many Japanese women is put out of work, women do not only lose money but also a lot of their social resources. Being forced to isolate or even take up household roles during quarantine makes it difficult to recover these things and they become more prone to lonelier lifestyles, depression and suicide.

It is for this reason that Japan has recognised loneliness and mental health as a national issue and has become amidst the first few countries to establish whole sections of government aimed at addressing it.

Loneliness Minister Sakamoto has mentioned the need to expand access to consultation services and support groups online (e-consultation) to people who are lonely and depressed during quarantine. In late February he even held an emergency forum alongside PM Yoshihide Suga to hear the words of those affected by loneliness and isolation across Japan.

Japan is visibly making large strides in governance towards people’s mental health and it is a lesson Indonesia could benefit from following. As Indonesia is also deeply affected by COVID-19, we are beginning to see increasingly isolated and recluse lifestyles among ourselves.

We must not underestimate the effects of prolonged isolation on the psyche of our people, especially women and the youth. It is in the interest of all nations including Indonesia to further strengthen our mental health systems, and perhaps a Ministry of Loneliness or Mental Wellbeing is a good first step.