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When Yoko Higashi moved to Taipei five years ago, she frequented a local restaurant on most nights to grab some dinner by herself. She had made a few friends at the language school she was attending, but after a long day studying Mandarin, she wanted some time on her own to wind down.

The owner of the establishment, however, grew concerned.

“‘Why are you always alone? I can introduce you to some people I know,’” he would tell her out of kindness, recalls Higashi, a freelance writer and editor who is now based in Hanoi, Vietnam. “He must have thought I was a lonely language student with no one to eat supper with. I don’t think he understood that I wanted some space by myself.”

Coming from Japan, where dining alone is a widely accepted practice, it was a fresh realization that being solo is considered awkward and even antisocial in some societies.

“There are many aspects of Asian culture that we share, but I learned that the idea of being alone can be quite different depending on the country,” Higashi says.

That tolerance, or even affinity, for solitude has never been on better display than during the ongoing pandemic. Despite there being no stringent lockdown measures in place, many Japanese have been complying with social distancing and stay-at-home requests during various states of emergencies.

Businesses have shifted focus toward solo activities such as camping since the spread of COVID-19 curtailed large gatherings in indoor settings. | GETTY IMAGES
Businesses have shifted focus toward solo activities such as camping since the spread of COVID-19 curtailed large gatherings in indoor settings. | GETTY IMAGES

Meanwhile, mainstream media has been espousing the virtues of ohitorisama, a word that roughly translates as “party of one” that’s used to describe the growing market for solo activities. With gatherings frowned upon, the logic goes, doing things on your own should reduce infection risks.

There are yakiniku (Korean-style barbecue) and shabu-shabu (meat and vegetable hotpot) restaurants catering to solo diners. One-person gym pods and sauna rooms are available in big cities, and hotels and ryokan (Japanese-style inns) offer special deals for solo travelers.

Outdoor activities such as solo camping and solo hiking are trending, while numerous books and manga describe how life’s many pleasures can be enjoyed by yourself, free from the watchful eyes of friends, colleagues or neighbors.

Everything has a flip side, of course. While the benefits of going solo are praised, the number of suicides and cases of domestic violence are up, and so-called lonely deaths — where those living alone are found dead in their homes — are reportedly on the rise. And the negative psychological impact of isolation is taking its toll in the form of depression and anxiety.

But why is Japan, a society known for giving priority to the group over individuals and where conformity is highly-prized, so infatuated with the idea of solitude?

Avoiding obligation

In Japanese, there’s a term known as murahachibu, which means being excluded from village life and refers to shame-based social ostracism, says Yoshihiko Morotomi, a Meiji University professor and clinical psychologist who has written books about solitude.

“There’s a strong sense of peer pressure in Japan, where an insular village-style mentality forces people to feel compelled to be very sensitive about relationships,” Morotomi says. “So eating alone or engaging in hobbies and activities by yourself becomes a liberating experience — a huge relief and a temporary escape from the various interpersonal obligations people feel chained to.”

That sentiment was echoed recently in a speech Syukuro Manabe gave after being awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Asked why he became a United States citizen and pursued a career outside of his birth country, he said that in Japan people are focused on not disturbing others, instead prioritizing harmonious relationships. That wasn’t the case in the United States, he said.

“I can do whatever I please in my research (without worrying about what other people think),” he said. “That is one reason … I don’t want to go back to Japan. Because I’m not capable of living harmoniously.”

Dining alone is a widely accepted practice in Japan. | GETTY IMAGES
Dining alone is a widely accepted practice in Japan. | GETTY IMAGES

While COVID-19 is exacerbating various socioeconomic issues in Japan — from rising unemployment and bankruptcies to social isolation and diminishing mental health — for some it’s an excuse to not have to deal with burdensome relationships, Morotomi says.

Take the customary after-work drinking parties that are supposed to encourage bonding between bosses and their subordinates.

A survey carried out in March this year by web marketing firm Nexer Inc.’s research arm and Diamond Online, a website run by publisher Diamond Inc., found that 70.3% of respondents said they now turn down such invitations from their superiors while 60.2% said they refuse those from clients. The spread of remote work amid the health crisis, the firms said, has made it easier for employees to decline such requests.

“I personally know people who feel relieved that they don’t have to dine out with colleagues during the pandemic,” Morotomi says.

Downward spiral

The varied perceptions toward being alone may stem from how in Japanese, solitude and loneliness are described using the same word, kodoku, says Junko Okamoto, a communications strategist and author of “Sekai-ichi Kodoku na Nihon no Ojisan,” (“The Loneliest People in the World: Japan’s Middle-aged Men”).

“Solitude and loneliness are understood to be two distinct psychological states, but in Japan these concepts are often blurred into one,” she says.

Junko Okamoto has published a book that warns of the physical and psychological dangers associated with loneliness and isolation. | COURTESY OF JUNKO OKAMOTO
Junko Okamoto has published a book that warns of the physical and psychological dangers associated with loneliness and isolation. | COURTESY OF JUNKO OKAMOTO

When Okamoto published her book in 2018, titles such as “Gokujo no Kodoku” (“Exquisite Solitude”) and “Kodoku no Susume” (“Recommending Solitude”) — books that championed the perceived beauty, dignity and independence of going on your own — were bestsellers. A television drama series called “Kodoku no Gourmet” (“Solitary Gourmet”) based on a manga series of the same name was also entering its seventh season amid popular demand.

So when Okamoto’s book — which warned of the physical and psychological dangers associated with loneliness and isolation — was published, it was met with a deluge of negative feedback, especially from men who questioned what is wrong with being alone.

“I think it’s safe to say that solitude, or enjoying time on your own, is a good thing, while feeling lonely and not being able to rely on anyone has an adverse affect on health — a fact that has been proven by countless scientific studies and addressed worldwide,” she says.

In her book, for instance, Okamoto cites statistics from reports showing that loneliness can raise the risk of heart disease by 29%, and how it’s as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day while increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s by 2.1 times.

“But while those in their 20s and 30s appear concerned over the issue, older men in Japan tend to play it down, perhaps because of lingering patriarchal values that consider it shameful for men to show their inner weakness,” she says.

Men in that same demographic, however, have been most prone to taking their own lives, with those in their 40s to 60s accounting for a third of all suicides in Japan. And Okamoto fears the psychological impact of the pandemic could linger long after the health crisis subsides.

“Communication is a skill that needs to be constantly honed, or else people can easily lose touch with it,” she says.

The advent of remote work and avoidance of group activities due to virus contagion risks, coupled with the trend that plays up the virtues of solitude, could have an adverse effect of leading to wider intolerance in society, she says.

“That could see more people sucked into a downward spiral of loneliness,” she warns.

Old inhibitions

In February, the government appointed a minister in charge of combating loneliness and isolation, the second country to establish such a portfolio following the United Kingdom in 2018. It was the first major step toward comprehensively tackling a pervasive problem that has been plaguing the country for decades.

Ai Sakata, an analyst at Nomura Research Institute, says Japan has yet to clarify what exactly the concept of loneliness entails. | COURTESY OF NOMURA RESEARCH INSTITUTE
Ai Sakata, an analyst at Nomura Research Institute, says Japan has yet to clarify what exactly the concept of loneliness entails. | COURTESY OF NOMURA RESEARCH INSTITUTE

Ai Sakata, an analyst at Nomura Research Institute, noticed that while the definition of loneliness is spelled out in the U.K., Japan has yet to clarify what exactly the concept entails.

According to the British government, loneliness is “a subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact.”

“I think these definitions are revealing and reflective of national traits,” Sakata says. “If I were to define loneliness for the Japanese, it would be the gap, or even envy, that you feel when comparing yourself to other people’s level of social contact, not with your own ideals.”

Sakata says young Japanese often compare their social lives with their peers through social media platforms.

“‘He or she seems to be enjoying college life, but I’m not. I should be happily married but my husband is constantly away during the weekend when other people’s husbands aren’t,’ and so on,” she says. “Perhaps it’s characteristic of Japanese people to be prone to losing confidence when comparing themselves to others.”

In July, Sakata released a report based on a survey NRI conducted in May about loneliness and changes in lifestyles related to the pandemic. Results based on 2,204 respondents showed that 1 in 2 people in their 20s and 30s feel lonely in their daily lives, as well as 1 in 3 who are married or not living alone.

Meanwhile, as men get older, the percentage of respondents who say they don’t want to discuss the matter also grows.

“Men, especially those over the age of 50, appear to feel inclined not to open up about loneliness,” Sakata says, which makes it difficult to assess their mental states. “In either case, it seems clear that COVID-19 is having a negative impact on people’s psychological well-being.”

COVID-19 has curtailed large gatherings in indoor settings, prompting more people to pursue individual outdoor activities such as hiking and camping. | GETTY IMAGES
COVID-19 has curtailed large gatherings in indoor settings, prompting more people to pursue individual outdoor activities such as hiking and camping. | GETTY IMAGES

Going solo

Loneliness, needless to say, is a global phenomenon, and nations around the world are increasingly examining the mental state as a public health concern, says Atsushi Manabe, a writer and critic who has written about loneliness and Japan’s ohitorisama culture.

“Human connection and communities have been gradually eroding in developed countries such as the United States and in Europe,” he says. “That has given rise to services that fill the gap, something that seems to be accelerating with the pandemic.”

Behind the phenomenon in Japan, he says, is the growth in single-person households and an aging population, coupled with a diversification of work styles.

Yoko Higashi, a freelance writer and editor based in Hanoi, misses her solo excursions in Japan. | COURTESY OF YOKO HIGASHI
Yoko Higashi, a freelance writer and editor based in Hanoi, misses her solo excursions in Japan. | COURTESY OF YOKO HIGASHI

In 2015, for example, around 23% of the male population and 14% of the female population were unmarried by the age of 50, a rate that was forecast to rise steadily until 2024, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

The graying nation is also seeing an increasing pool of widows and widowers. Last month, the communications ministry said 29.1% of Japan’s population, or 36.4 million people, were 65 or older — a record high.

While the rise in businesses geared toward solo activities could be reducing the negative social pressures toward being alone, Manabe says he fears the boom could be hiding an underlying problem with loneliness that the nation harbors.

“It’s an issue that affects all aspects of daily life,” he says, “and something society as a whole needs to deal with.”

Higashi, the writer and editor who is based in Hanoi, says she misses her solo excursions in Japan.

“I long for Japan’s teishoku (set meals for one) since dishes here are served in large portions,” she says, adding that she also feels out of place visiting tourist spots and downtown areas by herself.

“But in Japan, I think ohitorisama has definitely gained mass acceptance. Look at the ramen, yakiniku, karaoke and travel plans catering to single customers. People are also more tolerant of those acting on their own,” she says. “That’s probably why I don’t feel lonely when I’m in Japan doing something on my own.”

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