How NPOs can deal with the issues of loneliness and isolation in Japan InsightsEssays: Civil Society in JapanVoices from JNPOCOther Topics

Posted on December 20, 2022

In 2018, Japan NPO Center (JNPOC) started a news & commentary site called NPO CROSS to discuss the role of NPOs/NGOs and civil society as well as social issues in Japan and abroad. We post articles contributed by various stakeholders, including NPOs, foundations, corporations, and volunteer writers.
For this JNPOC’s English site, we select some translated articles from NPO CROSS to introduce to our English-speaking readers.

How NPOs can deal with the issues of loneliness and isolation in Japan 

Kenji Yoshida, Managing Director, Japan NPO Center

Note: This article was originally published in Japanese on May 26, 2022, as a sequel to the article “A Multi-Sectoral Platform Tackling Loneliness and Isolation Kicks Off.” We recommend reading the previous article in conjunction with this one.


On April 8, 2022, the Cabinet Secretariat’s Office for Isolation and Loneliness released the results of the Basic Survey on Human Connection.

Outline of the National Survey on Isolation and Loneliness (Basic Survey on Human Connection)
from the Cabinet Secretariat website

In this survey, 4.5% of the respondents answered that they “often/always” feel loneliness. Combining those who responded “sometimes” and “occasionally” is a total of 31.9%. This means that one out of three feels loneliness at some point in their lives. In the indirect question items that capture loneliness without using the word “loneliness” in the questions, the total of the respondents who answered they “always” or “sometimes” feel lonely was 43.4%.

Concerning isolation, 11.2% of the respondents have no direct face-to-face conversations with friends or family members who do not live with them. 53.2% have no social participation, such as through sports, community associations, and volunteering.

Furthermore, with regard to social isolation, there exists a report titled “Research Project Report on the Actual Situation and Factors of Social Isolation” (by Mizuho Research & Technologies conducted as a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare project) which was published in 2021. It classifies social isolation into four types with the appearance ratio estimates of each type: Conversation Lacking Isolates (2.2%), Receptive Support Lacking Isolates (14.2% in a broad sense and 1.7% in a narrow sense), Provisional Support Lacking Isolates (3.2%), and Social Participation Lacking Isolates (34.0% in the broad sense and 6.6% in the narrow sense). Additionally, the report points out the risk that the state of social isolation may lead to economic deprivation and health concerns.

The Japanese government announced “The Priority Plan for Measures against Loneliness and Isolation” on December 28, 2021. It states that “the situations among the people concerned and their families widely vary, and the way people feel and perceive loneliness and isolation varies from person to person,” and that loneliness and isolation can happen to anyone at any stage of life. The plan also notes that it is not a problem of the individual concerned, but rather caused by a change in the social environment, in which individuals are forced to feel lonely and isolated. Therefore, the report maintains that this matter must be addressed by society as a whole.

However, since loneliness and isolation are issues that involve a person’s subjectivity, it is difficult to identify the problem or grasp the essence of it.

In the aforementioned government’s Priority Plan, “loneliness” is defined as a “subjective notion regarding a mental state in which one feels alone,” while “isolation” is an “objective notion regarding a state in which one has no/few connections with society.” I think that the subjective notion of loneliness, in particular, does not seem appropriate for third-party evaluation. Some people may be isolated and feel lonely, while others may not be isolated but still feel lonely. On the contrary, there may be people who are isolated yet do not feel lonely. Or, even in an otherwise comfortable life, we may suddenly feel lonely at times.

More to the point, the fact that one feels lonely does not mean that it is a problem. Results from the aforementioned Basic Survey pointed to the risk of social isolation leading to other problems, but it is not that these other problems always occur as a result.

We must also take into consideration that even if one would welcome support, some may be reluctant to reveal that they are in a state of loneliness or isolation.

In the field of quantum mechanics, there is a principle called the uncertainty principle. Roughly summarized, it says that we cannot identify the location of the matter and its momentum at the same time. To put it in the context of loneliness and isolation, if we try to identify the individualized and subjective aspects of this problem, we will soon run into a problem with the identification of personal information. Identifying demographic or other unique traits among the affected individuals can easily lead to their social stigmatization and further isolation from society. In other words, by focusing on individual issues to locate the crux of the problem and to help people, we, in turn, run the risk of worsening the very problem by contributing to social divisions and further isolation. You see how elusive the problem is as if the uncertainty principle was at work.

However, I suppose that NPOs may be able to overcome this problem. Even if their activities are not directly aimed at reducing people’s loneliness and isolation, NPOs are creating connections among people through their activities, and as a result, contributing to the elimination or reduction of people’s loneliness and isolation.

By over-identifying the factors that have led to loneliness and isolation at the individual level, the affected person may be further stigmatized and end up losing his or her place in the community altogether. Instead, by encompassing the whole community and leveraging the power of community connections, we can avoid the risk of life-related problems that the individual face without specifying the background of the individual’s problems; creating such a society, I believe, is what is expected of NPOs.

Original text by Kenji Yoshida (Managing Director, JNPOC) originally posted on May 26, 2022; translated by JNPOC