There have been a number of stories lately about the criminal proclivities of Japan’s senior citizens. On the northern island of Hokkaido, arrests of seniors actually outnumbered arrests of teenagers in 2006. Since then, the number of elder arrests has risen to three for every two bookings of teens. Nationally, crimes by seniors have risen fivefold over a 20-year period. This has occurred concurrent to an overall drop in the crime rate: In 2007, elderly crimes rose 4.2 percent while the overall arrest rate dropped almost 5 percent.
Most of this is petty crime, primarily theft of food and non-alcoholic drinks. Violent crime remains rare, although it has increased. Shoplifting accounts for more than half of theft arrests of men and 90 percent of thefts by women.
Increased poverty somewhat explains the trend, as the Washington Post reports:
“A government survey of 137 elderly shoplifters in Tokyo found that a desire to “cut back on spending” was a primary motivation of 59 percent of the women arrested. Two-thirds of men said they stole because of their tough financial situation.”
However, Justice Ministry officials report that only 7 percent of the thieves qualified for state welfare payments. Most received varying levels of pensions. Fear of poverty appears to be a stronger motive than any actual need to steal for subsistence. Many seniors are worried following a spectacular scandal in which the government lost over 50 million peoples’ pension files. This grand-scale fuck-up, combined with the overall declining economy, has many seniors worried about their long-term financial health.
There are cultural and sociological causes as well. Japanese society’s traditional reverence for the elderly has faded with modernity. Seniors increasingly live alone, rather than with their children or grandchildren. One Hokkaido police official summarizes:
“They are not in touch with their children and have no connection with their brothers and sisters,” Shibata said. “These are people who worked so hard for so many years for their companies and for their country. All of a sudden, all their work has come to nothing. They have empty time on their hands.”
Many are driven by a desire for human contact or excitement, and those caught are often eager and happy to talk to police. Dislocation from society, as well as simple boredom, are as powerful causes as economic need:
“Here in Sapporo, police in September arrested a 71-year-old retired man in a grocery store after he tried to steal 14 items, including ice cream, worth $27. He told police that he often shoplifts.
The man receives a social welfare check for about $1,600 a month and lives with his wife, who is ill and unable to do housework. He told police that his wife’s illness caused him stress but that when he steals, he feels “refreshed.”
At the time of his arrest, he had $7,500 in cash in his pocket.”
Very few of these elder criminals receive prison sentences. However, the Japanese government is currently spending approximately $60 million to construct three new prison wards specialized to house senior citizens. Unfortunately, Japan lacks an infrastructure of organizations capable of coping with the psychological needs of its aging population. Public awareness campaigns about shoplifting have met resistance from store owners, who hesitate to put up anti-shoplifting posters for fear of offending loyal customers. The long-term solution, for a population that is only getting older, will have to include improved socialization programs for seniors without children or grandchildren. Whether community centers, counceling programs, or manga Marxism, Japan needs to find something more than robots to keep its seniors off the streets.