By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 17, 2006
ONOMICHI, Japan -- In a spotless prison ward here, inmates while away their free time reading large-print samurai novels and singing golden oldies on karaoke. Support rails and metal walkers help them ease into soothing steam baths and do light daily chores. After dining on low-sodium suppers in their rooms, most of the fragile felons curl up for the night with freshly filled hot-water bottles.
The senior citizens ward inside crammed Onomichi Prison is being hailed as a model for Japan, a rapidly graying nation now grappling with an alarming surge in aged criminals. In a country long renowned for unlocked doors and a culture of reverence for one's elders, the phenomenon has left law enforcement and penal officials scrambling to manage the recent flood of seniors being put behind bars.
Japanese over 60 now represent the country's fastest-growing group of lawbreakers, with the soaring rate of senior delinquents far exceeding their growth in the general population. The number of those age 70 and older who have been charged has increased the most -- doubling in just four years to a record 21,324 in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available. By comparison, juvenile arrests edged up only 2.2 percent during the same period, according to the National Police Agency.
The leap in crime among the elderly is in part because of demographics. Japan has the world's longest life expectancy-- 82 years -- and the highest percentage of seniors, with almost one in five Japanese now 65 or older. But officials are also citing an outbreak of geriatric crime, including a spike in first-time offenders committing anything from petty theft to murder.
The situation is forcing Japan to confront the problems of an aging prison population more quickly than other industrialized nations facing similar crises. At the same time, Japan is struggling to understand the factors driving seniors to crime.
Criminologists blame the collapse in recent years of traditional extended families, in which elderly Japanese live with their adult children. Increasingly left on their own, older Japanese are suffering higher rates of depression and other mental illnesses. In some cases, experts say, that is manifesting itself as crime.
Limited national welfare benefits also have left a small but growing minority of elderly confronting severe financial problems -- leading some to see Japan's relatively safe prisons as an attractive alternative to life on their own, analysts and prisoners say. In 2004, there were only 10 reported incidents of prisoner-to-prisoner violence in the country's 64 penitentiaries.
"Like junior high school students, some older people have the money to pay for things, but they are stealing anyway because they want attention from their families," said Hiroshi Shojima, professor of criminal psychology at Fukushima University. "But it is also true that Japanese prisons are comparatively comfortable. They are spotlessly clean and generally free of violence. If you are a lonely and struggling old person, that atmosphere can be tempting."
The prisoners of Onomichi Prison, as with so many in Japan, enter a life behind bars that often seems part jail, part military school, part monastic retreat. Most prisoners sleep in barred cells six to seven to a room, with long periods of silence enforced to control verbal contact between inmates and prevent the rise of prison gangs. It has, officials and experts say, limited the ability of Japanese yakuza members to form criminal gangs -- and is cited as a key factor in the extraordinarily low incidence of prison violence.
Also, officials say, it affords a chance for inmates to reflect on their crimes and seek a measure of inner peace. The senior ward, however, offers more seclusion -- a hospital-like environment equipped with many private rooms. Charts on doors indicate special dietary and physical needs. The recreation area, with all walls papered over by prison artwork, allows the older inmates to enjoy pin bowling and light exercise -- but never more than they can tolerate, officers insist.
The vast majority of crimes being committed by seniors are nonviolent -- usually shoplifting or other types of petty theft. In some instances, "grandpa bandits" are acting together -- last February, police in southwestern Japan arrested three men, ages 71, 69 and 67, for allegedly organizing a purse-snatching ring.
As Japanese live longer, caregivers come under more strain. A 61-year-old inmate in Onomichi Prison who agreed to speak on the condition that he be identified only by his initials, N.T., said he had spent decades caring for his elderly mother. She suffered from severe arthritis, asthma and incontinence, and would frequently spend nights crying out in agony, he recalled. He said she repeatedly begged him to "end her pain." Struggling financially and desperate, he stabbed her to death with a fruit knife in the heart two years ago.
He got four years in prison -- a light sentence for what appeared to be a mercy killing. He is eligible for an early parole if one of his three siblings takes him in. They have refused, and have even asked him not to return to their home town on the breezy Sea of Japan.
"I guess I can understand -- I killed our mother," he said, wearing a gray jumpsuit and staring down at his hands as he wrung them. "But now I have nowhere to go. Here, at least, I am well cared for. I have made many friends and I feel safe. It is getting out that makes me feel more anxious."
Particularly harsh societal judgment on those who commit crimes has made reintegration into society for repeat offenders exceedingly difficult. It is not uncommon for shamed Japanese families to erase related criminals from their lives.
"My three sons will no longer speak to me, and my wife's family forced her to divorce me," said a 75-year-old resident of the Onomichi's senior citizens ward who also asked to be identified by only his initials, S.I. He said he committed his first robbery at age 61 after the coffee shop he owned went bankrupt. Since then, he has been jailed four times for theft -- most recently in 2003. "This is my home now. There is a lot of discipline here, but life is not so bad."
Alarmed by what they have seen, Japanese law enforcement authorities have launched a two-year study of the social causes behind elderly crime. But the effects are already being felt inside Japan's overcrowded prisons.
The proportion of prisoners 60 and older in Japan reached a record 14.5 percent in 2004 -- almost triple the U.S. rate, according to government statistics. That has contributed to rising prison health-care costs, which jumped 12 percent over the past four years, as well as overcrowding. Prison occupancy has swelled to 117 percent of capacity, compared with 79 percent a decade ago.
Prisons have been forced to adapt. None has gone as far as the one here in Onomichi, a town in Hiroshima prefecture about 400 miles southwest of Tokyo. The prison set aside areas for elderly prisoners as far back as 1985, but officials began taking additional steps in the late 1990s. Today, the feeblest 35 of the prison's 46 inmates over age 60 have been moved to the senior ward, where handrails have been placed in the halls and alongside toilets.
To avoid climbing stairs, the 35 men are grouped on one floor and, if needed, are provided walkers to help them get to nearby workstations, a recreation room and steam baths. They have shortened work hours -- with their labor consisting mostly of folding paper bags. A portable Japanese straw mat is kept on hand if any of them feels faint and needs a rest.
"The social problems associated with the aging nation are being reflected in the growing number of elderly prisoners," said Takashi Hayashi, Onomichi's deputy superintendent. "That is forcing our prisons to take the same measures as elderly-care homes. These men are paying for crimes, but we also have an obligation to provide them with care. It is not easy, but that is what we are trying to do."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.