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."
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. He told police that he preferred not to spend money on groceries.
This country of 127 million has the oldest population on record. Slightly more than 22 percent of residents are 65 and older. (In the United States, about 12 percent of the population is that age.) For the first time in Japan's history, people 75 and older make up more than 10 percent of the population.
The number of children, meanwhile, has declined for 27 consecutive years. Demographers say the elderly -- who tend to live longer in Japan than elsewhere -- will continue to increase until 2040, when they will outnumber the young by nearly 4 to 1.
To slow the growth of elder crime, the Justice Ministry recommends that the government create programs to stabilize the lives of those older than 65, financially and socially.
The government, though, has moved in the opposite direction in recent years. As many as 64 million government pension records have been lost as part of a botched effort by the Ministry of Health and Welfare to computerize the pension system. Despite government reassurances, the loss of the records has frightened the elderly, many of whom are concerned that there will be no pension for them in the future, said Koh Fukui, an official of the shoplifting-prevention group.
"Some elderly people are shoplifting because they feel that with all the problems of the pension system, they should save their money for the future," he said.
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.
The global financial crisis, which has plunged Japan into what economists predict will be a severe and protracted recession, is likely to limit the government's ability to spend more on programs for the elderly. Spending is also limited by the government's enormous debt burden, the highest among wealthy countries, which amounts to 182 percent of gross domestic product.
Police and nonprofit groups say few organizations in Japan are able to provide counseling for the elderly, either before they are arrested for shoplifting or after they have been taken into custody.
Elderly people accused of petty theft are usually released after a warning if they show remorse, police say. In most cases, prison terms are given only to serious repeat offenders.
When the elderly are released from prison, most return to the same isolated lives that helped push them into petty theft, police say.
In supermarkets and convenience stores across Japan, public-awareness campaigns to prevent theft have been hindered by foot-dragging among store owners, who do not want to offend loyal customers.
"There is resistance to putting up posters saying, 'Shoplifting is a crime,' " said Fukui, of the prevention group. "Merchants don't want their customers to think that they are regarded as potential shoplifters."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.