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Japan Appoints ‘Minister of Loneliness’ To Combat Rising Suicide Rates

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  • Earlier this month, Japan appointed Sakamoto Tetsushi as the country’s Minister of Loneliness, tasked with addressing rising suicide rates.
  • Suicides were declining worldwide, except in the U.S., ahead of the coronavirus pandemic but have since seen startling spikes.
  • In October, Japan reported 400 more suicide deaths than all COVID-19 related deaths in the nation until that point.
  • While suicide cases among men in Japan are higher, the country has seen a drastic increase in suicides among women, who are more likely to have unstable work that is susceptible to market disruptions from the coronavirus.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Loneliness Is a Rising Issue

Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshinori appointed Sakamoto Tetsushi as its Minister of Loneliness earlier this month.

Sakamoto is already in charge of combating Japan’s declining birthrate and regional revitalization efforts, but his new role will see him combating Japan’s rising suicide rate. Suicides were actually on the decline in Japan until the COVID-19 pandemic, which has drastically exacerbated the issue.

That trend reached a milestone in October 2020 when Japan suffered 2,153 suicides – nearly 400 more than all COVID-19 related deaths in Japan until that point. Currently, monthly suicides no longer exceed the total amount of deaths from COVID-19, as Japan faced an outbreak at the end of the year and has over 7,500 COVID-19 deaths.

Even though monthly suicides no longer outstrip total coronavirus deaths, the rate hasn’t let up. While men still make up the vast majority of suicides, there’s been a drastic increase in women taking their own lives. Between October 2020 and October 2019 there was a 70% increase in female suicides.

According to Ueda Michiko, a Japanese professor at Waseda University who studies suicides, women are particularly affected because they often have more unstable employment that is more susceptible to disruptions caused by the pandemic.

She went to tell Insider, “A lot of women are not married anymore. They have to support their own lives and they don’t have permanent jobs. So, when something happens, of course, they are hit very, very hard.”

Internationally Suicides on the Rise

Sakamoto hasn’t outlined any specific plans to combat loneliness in Japan, but he has a blueprint to work from as he’s not the world’s first Minister of Loneliness. The U.K. appointed one in 2018 after a report found more than 9 million Brits said that they often or always felt lonely.

But the job doesn’t seem very easy or desirable, as the U.K. has gone through three ministers of loneliness since then.

COVID-19 has been a massive disruption to suicide rates globally, which had actually been steadily declining for decades. The notable exception to this is the United States, which has faced increases nearly every year since 1999 adding up to almost a 30% total increase over the past two decades.

If you’re in the U.S. and feeling suicidal or have thoughts of suicide contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

For reader across the globe, here are resources in your nation.

See what others are saying: (The Hill) (NDTV) (Insider)

International

Israel-Hamas Fighting Continues To Escalate as Tensions Take Over Social Media

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  • Fighting between Israel and Hamas forces within the Gaza strip escalated into Thursday, as both sides have continued rocket attacks and airstrikes, killing nearly 100 and injuring hundreds more.
  • Many fear the violence could turn into a ground war as Israeli forces gather on the border. At the same time, Israel is experiencing domestic conflict as angry Arab and Jewish citizens clash in the streets.
  • Numerous celebrities have spoken out about the fighting, though all faced criticism regardless of whether they shared pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, or neutral stances that called for peace.
  • The backlash highlights how divisive and complicated the over 70-year conflict between Israel and Palestine is.

Escalating Every Day

The situation between Israel and Palestine has dramatically escalated over the last two days, and as of Thursday morning, nearly people 100 are dead across both sides.

Hamas officials at the Gaza Ministry of Health claim that over 480 people have been wounded and 83 Palestinians have died in the conflict. That includes 17 children and at least one top commander, although Israel claims to have killed almost only militants and at least 10 top commanders. In Israel, six Israelis and one Indian national have died while dozens of others were wounded.

On top of the conflict with Gaza, Israel is also facing some of its most violent confrontations in decades between Jewish and Arab citizens. There have been reports of angry Arabs setting vehicles, a restaurant, and a synagogue ablaze. Meanwhile, in other communities, ultra-nationalist Jewish residents enacted their own violence by vandalizing Arab-owned cars.

In addition to this, there have also been accusations of what are described as lynchings by both groups.

Most Arab protesters deny that they are targeting Israelis as a whole, but instead are aiming at the ultra-nationalist, ultra-conservative Jewish communities that make up the vast majority of the Israeli settler movement. These same settler groups are using the Israeli government to force Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, which is one of the catalysts for recent events.

“How hard should you retaliate when they try to hurt you?”

As with any situation regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opinions are extremely divided. Some appeared to want to show support for their homeland while still having empathy for everyone involved, such as actress Gal Gadot who tweeted, “My heart breaks. My country is at war. I worry for my family, my friends. I worry for my people.”

This is a vicious cycle that has been on for far too long. Israel deserves to live as a free and safe nation, our neighbors deserve the same. I pray for the victims and their families, I pray for this unimaginable hostility to end, I pray for our leaders to find the solution so we could live side by side in peace. I pray for better days.”

The post was widely criticized, with users suggesting that calling the ongoing fighting a “war” implied some kind of power balance. That power imbalance was particularly highlighted in a video by late-night host Trevor Noah. In it, he pointed out that trying to get to “who’s wrong” is a wasted effort, and no matter what, important context will always be left out.

“Like just set aside motives and intentions and just look at technology alone. Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world. They can crush Gaza like that,” he added. “Not to mention one of the most powerful defense systems in the world. You shoot a rocket at them and it’s probably not going to do anything because of its defense system.”

“But I just want to ask an honest question here. If you are in a fight where the other person cannot beat you, how hard should you retaliate when they try to hurt you?”

Hard-Line Stances

Noah’s stance was a little more nuanced than many online, as he seemed to imply that Israel should have the ability to at least respond in some way to Hamas’ rocket strikes. Figures such as Bella Hadid didn’t agree. She painted the situation as more black and white, posting an image to Instagram that has one person asking if the conflict was over religion. The other person in the image responds, “They are not ‘fighting,’ Israelis are the oppressors and Palestinians are the oppressed and the situation is about anything but religion.”

That post has led others to use the same format to argue that Bella’s take is a reductionist argument that leaves out any context about the situation that is far more complex than it portrays.

For example, many noted that Bella discounts the importance of religion in the conflict, even though it’s always been a pillar and facet of identity that has helped fuel it. Her sister Gigi also posted about what’s going on, advocating that people look at this from the lens of human rights, as Israel has long been accused of being a de facto apartheid state that unfairly treats Palestinians.

Then there were those like Rihanna who took a “middle-of-the-road” approach. She wrote, “My heart is breaking with the violence I’m seeing displayed between Israel and Palestine!”

“I can’t bare to see it! Innocent Israeli and Palestinian children are hiding in bomb shelters…. There needs to be some kind of resolve! WE are sadly watching innocent people fall victim to notions by government and extremists, and this cycle needs to be broken!”

Pro-Palestinian users were quick to jump at her post, writing things like, “rihanna is giving such “all lives matter energy.” I’m disappointed. It’s not a conflict!! It’s one sided.”

As the outrage online continues, so does the fighting, with both Israel and Gaza firing at each other. There are reports that Israel is building up ground forces across from Gaza, and that the situation may escalate dramatically as at least three rockets were launched into Israel from southern Lebanon, a stronghold of the Islamist group Hezbollah.

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Al-Jazeera) (The Independent)

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International

Hamas and Israel Exchange Deadly Strikes Over Conflicts at Al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah

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  • Tensions between Israel and Palestine have risen dramatically over the last month since Israel restricted access to al-Aqsa mosque, along with other religious and traditional sites during Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month.
  • On top of this, there are ongoing clashes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where an Israeli court has ordered Palestinian families out of their homes despite a 1956 agreement that stated they could keep their homes after three years.
  • The two situations have jointly fueled weeks of massive protests in Jerusalem, leading to hundreds of injuries.
  • Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, issued an ultimatum to Israel to stop its actions. When the deadline passed Monday night, it launched over 400 rockets into Israel, which retaliated with its own airstrikes.

Actions at Al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah Fuel Anger

Dozens were killed across Israel and the Gaza Strip between Monday and Tuesday after both sides conducted airstrikes over rising tensions between Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem.

At play are two unique situations that have led to Palestinians becoming particularly frustrated at what they feel is unjust treatment by Israel. The first is what Palestinians describe as Israeli restrictions on religious and cultural practices during Ramadan. The other is the looming evictions of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Eastern Jerusalem.

The religious clashes began about a month ago at the start of Ramadan when Israeli security forces put up barriers to stop people from hanging out at the Damascus Gate, a popular spot during the holiest month in Islam.

The situation was made worse when Israel imposed a 10,000 person limit on prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. The 10,000 person limit meant tens of thousands of Palestinians were turned away or forcibly removed in a series of raids into the mosque and compound, the most recent of which caused a fire in a tree in the area.

Israel tried to de-escalate the ongoing protests by removing the barriers at the Damascus Gate to little avail.

Sheikh Jarrah: Microcosm for Entire Conflict

On top of the situation at the al-Aqsa compound, there have also been also large demonstrations over evictions in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The area was developed in the ’50s by Jordan when it controlled that part of Jerusalem as part of an agreement with Israel. Part of that agreement was that the families living there would be allowed to keep the homes after three years. Jordan eventually lost control of Sheikh Jarrah and seven decades later an Israeli court has ordered Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah to leave their homes.   

The court agreed with the accusation that the homes were illegally built on Jewish-owned land and should be returned to Jewish residents. In turn, Israeli settlers moved into the area and entered homes with families still living inside — a move that has been described as little more than blatant theft.

The evictions at Sheikh Jarrah have led to weeks of massive protests and this past weekend was no different with hundreds of injuries across both sides.

The entire situation was supposed to be settled, at least legally, during a Supreme Court hearing on Monday, but that was postponed until an unknown date, leaving many to feel like the situation won’t be resolved and fueling further protests.

Hamas Issues Ultimatum

In response to all of this, Hamas and its territory of the Gaza Strip decided to issue an ultimatum for Israel to leave the al-Aqsa Mosque complex and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood or it would launch rockets. When that failed to happen at 6 p.m. on Monday, Hamas launched a massive attack of over 400 rockets into Israel. Many fell short or were stopped by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.

However, some did find their targets and injured at least 10 Israelis and killing two. Israel responded by conducting airstrikes against Gaza, reportedly killing 26. Both sides have continued to bombard the other through the last 36 hours with promises to escalate the situation further.

Over the next few days, it’s likely that the death tolls will rise and the bloodshed will be used as its own excuse to continue the violent cycle that the region has been locked in since the middle of the 20th century.

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (Jersualem Post) (The New York Times)

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German Catholic Priests Defy Vatican by Blessing Same-Sex Unions

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  • Priests throughout Germany openly defied the Roman Catholic Church and blessed same-sex marriages over the weekend as part of an organized effort that has extended into this week.
  • In the past, the vast majority of willing priests would refuse to bless such marriages due to the ambiguity of the Church’s position, which was clarified in March 2021 as against blessing same-sex unions.
  • The effort by German priests has received some support in progressive nations but has been widely opposed by the greater Church.
  • The Vatican is unlikely to back down from its position; however, the challenge is large enough to potentially set off a debate on the issue within the Church.

Pope’s Stance on Blessing Same-Sex Unions

Catholic priests throughout Germany openly challenged a group of new rules by the Vatican this weekend and set the stage for a large debate over LGTBQ+ issues within the church.

At the center of the debate is a clear and complete ban on blessings of same-sex marriages by the Holy See from March of this year. Pope Francis’ official stance, and thus the Church’s official stance, is that priests cannot bless gay marriages because they are sinful, and the Church cannot “bless sin.”

Blessings are different from engaging in marriage ceremonies themselves and are used to bring marriages carried out by secular officials “into” the church.

The Pope’s stance received a lot of push back both within and outside of the church. Activists around the world felt it was overly restrictive and undermined Pope Francis’ other statements about loving LGBTQ+ members of the church. At the same time, hundreds of clergymen around the world, and especially in Germany, signed open letters with plans to defy the pontiff and bless same-sex unions anyways.

Such blessings weren’t completely unknown in the church because even without the Holy See’s official stance in March, it was assumed by clergymen that such blessings were forbidden; however, some carried them out anyways in secret.

Open Defiance of the Church

That secrecy largely came to an end this weekend in Germany. Sunday morning saw one of the first seemingly organized efforts in that defiance, with priests throughout Germany openly blessing same-sex marriages. The organized effort also includes another event planned for Monday, May 10, including live-streamed services.

Despite the progressive push by parts of the German church, most Catholic dioceses in the country back the Church’s official stance, and that support is even more widespread worldwide.

Beyond doctrinal differences, many German parishes are pushing for more progressive stances to cope with the fact that people are leaving the church in droves, partly because of its social stances. In some respects, those decisions have proven popular. 

As it stands, it’s unclear what will happen next to the priests and bishops who backed blessing same-sex unions, and whether or not other dioceses in progressive countries will take a similar stance and back them. It’s also unlikely that the church will change its stance on same-sex marriages.

In the meantime, hundreds of gay Catholic couples throughout Germany and neighboring countries plan to get their marriages blessed at a Catholic Church for the first time.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (BBC) (National Catholic Reporter)

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