National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Japan struggles to keep loneliness at arm’s length

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Society is crumbling into its component elements.

Not only Japanese society. Economic and technological progress worldwide favors — offline at least — individuals over groups. That’s good and bad, liberating and isolating.

Britain earlier this year became the first nation in history to appoint a minister for loneliness. Japan’s failure to do something similar points to lack of imagination, not lack of need.

Loneliness is first and foremost a personal problem, but also an economic one. It undermines health, slackens productivity and is said to cost Britain the equivalent of ¥4.7 trillion a year. It probably costs Japan more. Japan’s population is higher, and Japan seems to be lonelier.

How do you measure loneliness? Imperfectly, no doubt, but certain indicators are considered suggestive. There’s the growing number of people living alone, for instance. More than a third of Japanese households are single-occupant — not remarkably high by modern standards, seventh within the 36 developed nations of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Denmark, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Austria and France are ahead of it. Britain, which sees itself in crisis, is two places behind.

One can live alone and still have a vibrant social life. The Japanese in general don’t, says business weekly Shukan Toyo Keizai. It cites other OECD figures that suggest Japan is possibly the loneliest nation on Earth.

Some 15 percent of Japanese say they have no social intercourse at all outside the family — the highest in the OECD. Mexico is close behind at 14 percent, followed by the Czech Republic at 10. Denmark, No. 1 in terms of single-occupant households, is 17th here (3 percent). Germany, No. 2 in single-occupancy, is 16th (also roughly 3 percent).

There are many ways to be alone. One can be a “lifetime single,” as 20 percent of Japanese now are. One can be divorced — 1 in 3 Japanese marriages end that way. One can be widowed, or childless, or living apart from one’s children, or living apart from one’s family and friends (having been transferred, for example), or temporarily or permanently friendless, or isolated among family, friends and colleagues by (one possibility among many) a grief or problem that weighs on you but wouldn’t be understood by them.

The elderly are particularly — but not exclusively — vulnerable to loneliness. Fifteen percent of elderly men living alone have fewer than one conversation in two weeks, research cited by Toyo Keizai shows. Likewise 8.4 percent of young and middle-aged men living alone. That’s a lot of people coping with a lot of silence.

Working-age people have the advantage of workplace conversation — what there is of it; less and less, especially in IT and related fields where employees intent on their screens share office space but are scarcely aware of each other’s existence. A systems engineer in his 30s tells the magazine that the only office “communication” he’s aware of is his boss’ grumbling when he misses a deadline.

Humans are peculiar creatures. We can’t live with each other and we can’t live without each other. The difficulties of living with each other are ancient, but the means of living alone are multiplying, and more and more of us are learning the art of solitude and opting out of the social contract altogether.

Toyo Keizai introduces us (pseudonymously) to “Junpei.” He’s 42, has a master’s degree in technology and a job to match. He’s well off, friendly, successful, happy and alone. He would have married his girlfriend of 12 years if it had worked out that way, but when the relationship ended three years ago (her parents didn’t like him; she obviously did but wouldn’t foist on them a son-in-law they disapproved of), he shrugged, more relieved than heart-broken.

Nor was she terribly distraught. She had her life, he had his. His, apart from a challenging job, included such hobbies as driving alone to unfamiliar places and checking out the local bars.

Married, single; in company, alone — it’s all the same to him. He can adjust to circumstances whatever they are. If we were all like him, a minister of loneliness would never have been dreamed of.

We’re not, of course, and a more broadly representative example might be “Kenichi,” 49 and in IT. He wants to marry, wants children. He’s kindly and bespectacled, has a solid income and a ready laugh, works out at a sports gym and, in short, has much going for him.

He confesses to shyness, however. He’s rather tongue-tied. It slowed him down when he was young, and before he knew it he no longer was. He meets women through marriage agencies, and feels friendship for them but not passion. He wants to live with somebody, but whoever he’s with doesn’t seem to be the one. A relationship with a divorced woman of 35 seemed promising. He hesitated too long. She left. It’s hard to know what a ministry of loneliness would do for him.

Loneliness — prolonged isolation — sours our outlook on life, Toyo Keizai says. It can make us inconsiderate of and uninterested in others. Over time, “as more people grow isolated, it may turn Japan into a less tolerant society.”

There are alternate views. One is the theme of a bestselling book by writer Akiko Shimoju titled “Gokujo no Kodoku” (“First-class Solitude”). Being alone is not the “disease” that Toyo Keizai and others make it out to be, she says, but, on the contrary, a necessary means to a very healthy self-knowledge.

It’s a question of degree. If all the empty spaces in one’s day are filled by online socializing, what, Shimoju wonders, becomes of reflective, contemplative, musing, meditative, daydreaming solitude?

We may not, however, have gone quite as far down the internet drain as she and others fear. Toyo Keizai cites a 2016 Cabinet Office survey that asks young people and children who they turn to for help in a crisis. Family, say 78 percent; friends, say 65 percent; internet contacts, 22 percent.

But what of people who have no family and friends?

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.