Social isolation spreading in Japan


“Yosuke Asai” (a pseudonym) discovered at 44 how alone in the world he was. Count this as one more baleful effect of the coronavirus, says Spa! (July 6).

Isolation has long dogged Japan. An OECD survey of member countries dubs Japan the loneliest of nations, some 15 percent of its adults having no social intercourse outside work and family. Mexico (14 percent) comes a close second. The Scandinavian countries, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. (all under 5 percent) seem much better socially adjusted and, presumably, happier.

Asai’s story, as Spa! tells it, shows the virus’ role in the phenomenon. He was a salesman for a machine manufacturer – a good talker, as people in his line of work tend to be, constantly socializing with clients and colleagues, until the virus in effect sent him home.

There was his wife, but conversation with her went only so far. He grew restless, quarrelsome, and finally a little panicky. “I’m alone in the world!” he thought. For the first time in his life it hit him: “I have no friends outside work!” His thoughts went into overdrive. “What if my wife dies first?” Visions of dying alone, no one to note his passing or even dispose of his corpse, haunted him, cutting into his sleep.

Typical, says communication researcher Junko Okamoto – especially of retired men. Suddenly stripped of their corporate identities, unused to dealing with people who are neither colleagues nor clients, they find themselves at a loss. The isolation imposed by the virus in effect, Okamoto says, shifts the problem a generation forward, placing people Okamoto’s age in a quasi-retirement environment.

At its very worst, isolation can be deadly. The oft-noted rise in suicides in Japan since the pandemic’s outbreak – especially among women and children – sounds the loudest alarm. Research by the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology Research shows that socially isolated elderly face a death rate double that of those with firm social ties.

There are so many ways to be isolated. “Akiko Mukai,” 35, is a wife, mother and highly successful career woman – an unlikely candidate, at first sight, for inclusion in this story. The virus has nothing to do with her being in it.

She too was in sales, with all the gregariousness that implies. Her product was financial securities. Back at work after maternity and childcare leave, she found herself assigned – Spa! doesn’t tell us why – to a clerical department. She was a fish out of water. Her new colleagues were young single women. They were at home with documents; she, with people. What was she supposed to talk to them about? In terms of experience, character and age they were badly mismatched. They didn’t understand her, she didn’t understand them. If her child got sick and she had to leave early, they grumbled. What did they know about sick children? Worse – “I’m 10 years older than they are, but in terms of this department I’m junior and they’re senior, and I must address them accordingly.”

Who to talk to about this? Where to seek understanding and sympathy? Her husband? No, she says – he has his life, she has hers, and they don’t seem to see eye to eye on much. She’s alone – and she feels it keenly.

Is this a Japanese problem, or a human problem? one wonders. Both of course – but Japan’s culture of “vertical relationships,” says Spa!, makes communication on equal terms elusive, which no doubt accounts in part for the nation’s high standing in the OECD survey of loneliness.

© Japan Today

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Is this a Japanese problem, or a human problem?

its a a japanese problem. people complained to me about social isolation 20 years ago. it has nothing to do with the virus. the virus just exacerbated what was already there

19 ( +21 / -2 )

You simply have to become active for yourself. Go to a counter of a bar or izakaya and you are not alone anymore. Even if you are only at home, because of disability or no money or corona restrictions, you could find mail or pen pals in the internet, play remote chess with someone or such. The possibilities are limitless. It’s only just your turn, not the one of all others, to end any isolation or feelings of loneliness.

-7 ( +4 / -11 )

At least in Tokyo this is normal and has been for the 35 years I have lived here.

This is the reason I plan to leave on retirement.... And its not that they don't have social contact with the foreigner, they distance themselves from each other in a way I have not seen anywhere else in the world. The saddest element of Japanese culture that most seem to ignore.

13 ( +16 / -3 )

Back at work after maternity and childcare leave, she found herself assigned – Spa! doesn’t tell us why – to a clerical department.

It's obvious why. She took maternity and childcare leave. Duh.

9 ( +12 / -3 )

Social ineptitude is a big problem here. How to fix it? Who knows-parents and high school teachers pass this habit onto students/children.

11 ( +12 / -1 )

The pandemic has merely highlighted an existing problem in Japanese societies. What the article does not highlight is that the excessive number of hours eaten up by work leave no time for workers to have a social life outside work. Where are the gardening clubs or other clubs that support peoples hobbies? Without the time to indulge in hobbies there is little chance of meeting like minded people and getting out of the house and from under their wives feet!

7 ( +9 / -2 )

I am thinking of retiring in Osaka in the future. I will not miss living in Kanto. Live is just work here.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Most people have two lives, one at work and one at home. At least one may be socially rich. Work may have to be. Retirement often hits people hard, globally. Folk now have free time, but age-related issues increasingly restrict what they can do, and they have lost one of their lives, no longer having employment. They may also feel that they have lost their sense of purpose. If they are the less socially active half of a couple and their partner dies, they can find themselves alone, twiddling their thumbs, staring at increasing ill health, physical limitations, a sense of pointlessness, isolation and death.

That's not just Japan.

Being defined by your work is not uniquely Japanese. You may be more like that than you think. There are plenty of retired Japanese who spend their days doing the same things that retired folk do the world over with their friends - shopping, visiting community centres, taking care of their grandchildren and going on days out. If there is a difference, it may be that they are physically fitter than many Westerners their age, as obesity, diabetes, poor diet and the like is still less common in Japan.

The movement to urban areas that often separates elderly people in depopulating rural places from their younger family members may increase the isolation of the elderly, but this happens in many countries.

I hate to be the one to break this to you, but old age is no picnic for anyone, and it doesn't get any better. Wherever you are in the world, get yourself a hobby that the limitations of old age will not prevent you from enjoying. Try to stay in contact with some friends, colleagues and family. That may help. But even then, you are going to have to face the inevitable - your decline and your existence ending. So make the most of your youth, your days off, your holidays and any lockdown your get, whilst you are still young enough to enjoy it.

Old age is grim and gets grimmer. Everywhere. Not just in Japan.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

GBR48, rubbish, I semi retired at 55 and fully retired at 60, never regretted a millisecond of it. Your view of retirement is excessively gloomy, life is what you make it and as we go through life things change and you learn to adapt. If you want to collapse in a corner bewailing your lot, that is a matter of choice, as is choosing not to and looking outwards and forwards. Retirement entails change, not a surprise so like any future event just as you would in your work you plan ahead.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

Forgot to say old age is only Grim if you make it so, a lady I knew in the village was hammering sign posts in the ground for the village fete and riding horses in Kazakstan well in to her eighties. Active and engaged until the end.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Old age is a state of mind, not a number. It's only grim if you let it be.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

I think the lack of social skills and friends in Japan starts pretty young. They are very over-scheduled at school, between their regular classes and homework, club activities, and cram school. They have very little time to just relax and be kids in a park playing together. Also, schools don't organize many social events like dances or parties. Their cultural festivals and summer festivals are great for kids to relax and enjoy, and when you talk to adults, some of their fondest memories are these special events. I assume because it's relaxed and not regimented like their everyday lives are.

Once they are out of their regimes, they have trouble making friends, striking up conversations naturally, being vulnerable with their boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. I think the change really needs to start young.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Most of our social contacts occur at work. Simply because that is where one spends the majority of 'time'. It is also where social skills are practiced and honed, displacing the primary institution that precedes a life of work, which would be school. To hollow out school, as simply within the confines of the classroom, dismisses its larger aspects.

To deny that there are other constructs for friendships is a rather limited understanding.

Intimacy is essentially limited to interaction within a sphere of approximately 12 individuals. Which may be flexible and fluid. But eventually narrows done to several close relationships, perhaps limited to one tight friendship.

The notion that Japan is unique is amusing. Japan has a viable culture which is admirable in the larger aspects and within the particulars. But isolation and alienation exists in any and all industrial and post-industrial states. It is an established pattern known in many languages.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Social intercourse, a verb or a noun?

Frankly ghastly,

“Yosuke Asai” just say hello, you might get a knock back, wear a mask, socially distance, but there is life out there., you choice to be a stranger.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

“Akiko Mukai,” 35, is a wife, mother and highly successful career woman – an unlikely candidate, at first sight, for inclusion in this story. The virus has nothing to do with her being in it.

You have choice, plan a move,  financial securities?

That is a skill, and scarce too.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

It's obvious why. She took maternity and childcare leave. Duh.

Rather than simple punishment for taking leave, the company has probably transferred her because it thinks a mother of a young child can't do the same duties as regular sales staff any more. This would mean perfect attendance, tons of overtime, and no running off for PTA or when the kindy says the child has a fever. Unless her husband has very flexible working arrangements and can step in or she has au pair or a very committed grandparent, its probably going to be true. The lady says she doesn't know why she was transferred, which means there was no communication to speak of between her and the company about her role there. The company just did what it wanted or thought was best.

So basic problem #1 is having working hours that are incompatible with family life, not companies doing things that appear like punishing women for using maternity leave. Basic problem #2 is the inflexible job market that prevents or at least discourages her from giving this company the finger and putting her talents to better use elsewhere. A more flexible job market would feed back into problem #1 and ensure companies had to offer flexible arrangements to secure talented workers.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Shallow lives… in many communities there is simply no time for anything else. Since my teen years I’ve made time to volunteer as an activist for progressive causes, enjoy gigs, concerts, museums, and galleries…read, exercise, attend church and volunteer in that community. Creating a well-rounded life is not difficult, however it requires mindful decisions and choices. Well worthwhile. At 64, retired, active and involved, i have friends and colleagues of all ages. Sadly Japan usually does not allow one time to do so.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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