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Loneliness in Japan: Observations and reflections on an academic trip

Updated: Jun 9, 2019

This post is by Keming Yang.

During the past twelve years, I have been interested in cross-national comparative studies on loneliness and social isolation, so when the delegates from the London office of the Japan Society for Promotion of Science (JSPS) came to Durham to encourage us to apply for their fellowships, I told myself this was an opportunity I must jump on.

The only issue was, I did not know any researchers in Japan, let alone any specialists on loneliness! Fortunately, I found a few after searching their database, and one of them, Dr Tami Saito, the Head of Social Science section at Japan’s National Centre for Geriatrics and Gerontology (NCGG), was keen to bring me to Japan. Thanks to her perseverance and hard work, I was fortunate to be selected as one of JSPS Invitational Fellows for this year. While they allowed me to stay in Japan for up to three months, I could only squeeze out half a month from my teaching and administrative schedules.

I wrote this blog as an informal summary of my trip (17 March to 1 April 2019) that contains some of my thoughts and observations about the Japanese culture, social relations and loneliness, which I hope colleagues and readers find interesting.


If you choose someone randomly on the street and ask them which age group suffers from loneliness the most, most likely they would say the older people. They are not alone – the study of loneliness has grown up into a minor enterprise in academic fields such as public health, social gerontology, neurology, and social psychology, and most researchers in these areas focus on older people.

But they are not completely correct; what I have been trying to demonstrate in my research is that loneliness can be a problem for younger generations as well and the age-loneliness relationship depends heavily on national contexts. The UK government’s Strategy for tackling loneliness, published last year, acknowledges that loneliness could be an issue for anyone, but this is a point to be developed somewhere else. If we keep the status quo for now, it would be logical for us to derive that Japan should have the highest prevalence of loneliness, given it is one of the most, if not the most, ageing nations in the world. As far as I know, however, except for the tables on Europe that I produced in my recently published book, Loneliness: A Social Problem, no one has bothered to rank the nations in the world in terms of loneliness.

To include Japan in this ‘league table of loneliness’ I needed comparable data. On my trip, I was very happy to hear from a Japanese sociologist in Tokyo who is also interested in loneliness that the questionnaire used in the Japanese General Social Survey (JGSS) contains a question on loneliness. Upon a closer look, however, it turned out that the question was formulated quite differently from that used in the European Social Survey (ESS). It seems our hypothesis that Japan is one of the loneliest nations in the world will remain untested for a while.

Instead, it’s more interesting to talk about what I saw. My hosting institute NCGG is located in Obu, a small city to the south of Nagoya. It took a semi-fast train less than twenty minutes to go from one to the other. There are several other small cities in between, but I was struggling to tell that the train had left one city and entered another, because I didn’t see any open space between the cities, all of which was filled up by rows of houses or warehouses. I saw the same when I was travelling from Nagoya to Kyoto and to Tokyo. Thus, I hypothesized that Japan might also be one of the most urbanized nations in the world.

I could not help thinking of Simmel’s philosophically formulated hypothesis that people in metropolitans are more likely to suffer from mental problems. But Obu is different – not only it is small albeit very densely populated, it aims to distinguish itself as a ‘City of Health’. Walking through its streets, I could easily see several hospitals as they occupy the tallest buildings with either English or Chinese characters alongside their names in Japanese. In fact, NCGG is located in a large compound of National Hospital for Geriatric Medicine. I passed the hospital lobby every time I went to see my host, where I also saw many older people waiting quietly in the reception area. I couldn’t help wondering how they got there as I saw very few older people on the trains and only a few of them had a younger person accompanying by their side. Were they from all different parts of Japan or mostly from nearby areas? Were they lonely? I couldn’t tell. Unlike other stronger emotions, loneliness does not always reveal itself on the face.

Besides the ageing population and urbanization, cultural values and practices are another factor that makes me suspect Japan might be one of the loneliest nations in the world. Back in 1980, In his Introduction to The Anatomy of Loneliness that he edited with J. Ralph Audy and Yehudi A. Cohen, Joseph Hartog said he learnt from Narae Mochizuki that ‘the Japanese have about 50 words for loneliness and related terms…’ (p.8). I asked Dr Saito whether she could think of 50 such words, but she couldn’t.

While learning the Japanese language as much as I could before my trip, I also searched for Japanese words about loneliness. Besides the best corresponding word 寂しい (pronounced sabishi), I could only find the following: 淋しい, 一人ぼっち, 独りぼっち, 寂然, 佗しい, 人懐かしい, 人里離れた, which are closer to the meaning of being alone, solitude, quietness, or being away from others. I guess this applies to most other languages as well.

In the above volume, the anthropologist Christie Kiefer offered a more convincing observation, which I paraphrase as this: It seems that, for many Japanese people, it is taxing to establish and maintain social relations because it is difficult to tell what is socially appropriate or not in a large number of daily contexts. It is also too big a responsibility to keep all the commitments once a social relationship is established. Therefore, many keep a formal and polite façade to minimize any potential troubles with others, leaving only a very small number of occasions in which they are allowed themselves to release their emotions. This should not be taken as a completely supressing and negative aspect of mainstream Japanese culture, as to control such emotion is seen as a noble ability and a virtue. (See also this recent article on loneliness in the Japan Times)

Indeed, I found it very intriguing that I couldn’t always understand how the people I was interacting with truly felt, given that they made a nearly ninety-degree bow to me or to others, or when everyone on the train, in a public place, or at my presentation was so quiet. Perhaps what I experienced at the capsule hotel chain in Kyoto and Tokyo illustrates well the point: for four evenings I slept in a 2m×1.2m×1m capsule (all my belongs must be stored either in a separate locker or somewhere else). Physically, I was so close to a large number of other young and middle-aged males, but psychologically they were so far away from me. Everything was provided nicely: the sauna bath, the drinks, the breakfast, the wifi, etc. Everyone wass doing their best to be polite (I think), not to bother you, not to make noise, not even to make an eye contact, let alone to start a chat. I don’t think it was me – as an ethnic Chinese, some people have mistaken me as Japanese before, and they did not talk among themselves either. I had the same experience in konbini shops (convenient mini supermarkets such as The Co-Op) and restaurants: the choices are plenty, the food is fantastic, and the service is professional. Many places are packed with customers sitting tightly one next to each other with only the space for the dish in front of them, but everyone is simply eating very quietly. It was as if a part of Japanese culture suggested that it is wise not to talk to strangers; and it is considerate not to be noisy in a public place.

However, in terms of loneliness, be it in Japan or the UK or elsewhere, is it really good (no matter how you would define ‘good’) to behave as if others are not there when you are physically surrounded by so many people? And, in terms of loneliness, what does that tell us about people's social relations when that happens? And, what does that tell us about what’s going on in people's minds relative to lonliness? These are interesting questions I seek to study further. Hopefully I will get the chance!

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