Elderly Shoplifters on the Rise in Japan

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 30, 2008

SAPPORO, Japan -- Criminology is being stood on its head in fast-graying Japan.

Here on the cold northern island of Hokkaido, history was made in 2006 when total arrests of elderly people exceeded arrests of teenagers. The elderly accounted for 880 arrests, mostly for shoplifting, while teens were nabbed 642 times. Since then, elder crime has surged. For every two teenagers arrested on this island, police collared three people 65 and older.

The trend echoes across Japan, where crimes committed by the elderly are increasing at a far faster pace than the elderly population itself.

While the 65-and-older population has doubled in the past two decades, crime among the elderly has increased fivefold, according to government statistics released this month. Japan's overall crime rate, always low by world standards, has fallen for the past five years.

"We never dreamed we would be focusing on these old people," said Hirokazu Shibata, a Hokkaido police official who leads a crime prevention task force. "Theft used to be a crime of the young, but now it is overwhelmingly a crime of the old."

Around the world, criminologists have found that the propensity to commit crime peaks in the late teens and early 20s, and falls off steadily as people age. But Japan, with the world's oldest population and lowest proportion of children, is headed into uncharted waters for criminal behavior. Experts here predict that the entire country, like Hokkaido, will soon record more arrests of the old than of the young.

The elderly in Japan are committing crimes -- nearly all of them nonviolent offenses, mostly petty theft -- because of loneliness, social isolation and poverty, according to a Justice Ministry white paper released this month.

"When people feel lonely, there is an impulse to commit a crime so they will somehow connect with someone," said Shibata, whose task force has questioned 220 elderly people arrested mostly on charges of theft.

Shibata and other police in Hokkaido have also found what they describe as a consistent pattern of isolation and anxiety among elderly people who commit crimes.

"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."

A desperate desire for human contact or for novelty in their lives leads many elderly people to shoplift, experts say.

"They want somebody to talk to," said Hidehiko Yamamura of National Shoplifting Prevention Organization, a nonprofit group in Tokyo. "If they get caught, they can talk to the police. They are very easy to catch."

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