Legislate Away Our Loneliness

What can a Minister of Loneliness do for you?

Last year, a report came out about a new Minister of Loneliness in Japan, who is tasked with figuring out what to do about social isolation, poor mental health, and the country’s low birth rate. That’s a lot on the shoulders of one politician. I wonder, what can the government do, in a country where some elderly women like going to jail so that they won’t feel so terribly lonely and invisible?

The government can exert some influence, such as making certain mental health services more accessible or funding a new community center for seniors. But it can’t single-handedly change various underlying attitudes and incentives. Short of massively and forcibly restructuring society, what can the government do about long work hours, long commutes, nights spent in the company of online avatars, and people’s persistent feeling of invisibility?

Japan isn’t the only country that has created a government position aimed at fighting loneliness and its secondary effects, including awful mental health. In 2018, the U.K. also appointed a Minister of Loneliness to primarily address social isolation among elderly people. The results, discussed in this article, are so far underwhelming. And the article got published in January 2020, right before the pandemic. (Spotting the date of the article made me wince.)