Why Some of Japan’s Senior Citizens Purposely Commit Crimes

For the last 20 years, Japan’s senior citizens aged 65 and older purposely commit crimes to land themselves in prison. Both men and women will do this as an option to avert abject poverty and insurmountable debt. There are other reasons too such as lack of familial support and loneliness.

They mostly commit petty crimes with shoplifting and theft being the top offenses. Also, the number of second-time senior offenders is increasing as well.

This is concerning because Japan is not only one of the world’s largest economies but they also have some of the world’s oldest populations.

Shoplifting And Theft in Japan

In Japan, shoplifting and theft are serious offenses and the court system doesn’t allow people to get away with it as easily as they would in the United States.

In hopes of deterring theft, they impose harsh sentences for stealing even the most insignificant items.

But it doesn’t really seem to work when it comes to elderly Japanese persons who are looking to go to jail. Especially since the cost of housing, feeding, and caring for older people outweighs the price of what they steal.

Elderly Crime Statistics

In 1997, one out of 20 convictions were senior citizens. However, by 2017 that grew to more than one in five. In regards to older women, that statistic is nine out of 10.

To put this into perspective, a third of all those arrested over 65 years old incurred more than five convictions. This was just in 2016 alone.

This rate surpasses the growth of the elderly population as a whole, which comprise a quarter of Japan’s entire population.

It costs Japanese taxpayers ¥2,384,302 ($20,000 USD) per year to house and feeds the average inmate. With older people, that increases exponentially with medical care.

Reasons Why Senior Citizens Commit Crimes

Money is a huge factor as to why older people commit crimes. Other reasons include things like staving off loneliness and not wanting to be a burden to other family members. All this encompasses huge, sweeping changes in perceptions and practices around traditional family dynamics.

What makes all this particularly heartbreaking is that many of these elderly people had dreams and aspirations for their retirement years. But, life doesn’t always work out as planned and it ends up being far more complicated.

Sudden illnesses arise, spouses pass away, unforeseen disasters occur and other unfortunate events can take huge chunks of money from savings, pensions, and other accumulated nest eggs. This, in turn, prevents plans and dreams from manifesting.

Lack of Funds

While all Japanese senior citizens receive a pension once they reach retirement, Japan’s system isn’t very liveable.

It only offers a meager amount of money, which doesn’t cover all living costs. Therefore, the elderly are on an extremely impossible tight budget and inflation rises at a moment’s notice.

When there’s no other source of income or savings, they end up in debt paying basic expenses for things like healthcare, rent, food, gas, water, transportation and etc. So, it’s a dismal place to be in.

Isolation And Changing Traditional Family Values

For some seniors, they turn to crime out of loneliness and much of this is due to social changes in family traditions.

In the past, children looked out for parents and grandparents as well as aging aunts, uncles, and other elderly family members.  

Increasing Loneliness

But beginning in 1985 and up to 2015, the number of seniors living alone increased by 600%. This is because of high taxes and costs of living in combination with a lack of economic opportunities in the provinces.

All of which has forced younger people to move away, leaving their elderly relatives to fend for themselves.

Alternatively, some of these older people never married, never had children, or lost their families to tragedy. Therefore, they don’t have any family around for support.

They are, in essence, completely alone. Even if they do have family, they don’t want to burden them with their financial problems.

Not only is loneliness a financial hardship on the seniors, but it also imposes indescribable emotional and psychological emptiness. The isolation becomes crippling, unbearable, and desperate. To save their sanity, they turn to crime as a way out of their situation.

Rock Bottom Options

When these elderly citizens face such vicious loneliness and poverty, there are only two options available: prison or suicide. This latter option is also showing an alarming rate of increase, only displaying how difficult life is for retirees.

For others, the simplest and quickest remedy to this dire situation is to commit petty crimes. At least in prison, they get three meals per day along with a roof over their heads and decent healthcare.

Plus, there are others there with whom they can interact and make friends.

Prison Life Mentality

However, life isn’t easy in prison and there are certain jobs and activities they have to do while in there. Elderly prisoners have a hard time keeping up with it all.

With overcrowding becoming a prescient issue, it can be very overwhelming for anyone, especially the elderly.

Also, due to the prison’s strict rules, a sense of isolation may increase because of the fact that inmates can only speak with one another at specific times. Even when they can, they must be quiet and use low voices.

They Become Institutionalized

For someone to view this as a benefit that outweighs the pitfalls, they indeed are in crisis. The trade-off and saving grace is that they can take comfort in knowing they’ll get food, medicine, shelter, and a place to sleep.

The other problem with this kind of institutionalized perception is that they begin to believe they can’t have a life outside in the normal world. Indeed, when some regain their freedom, they commit even more crimes to ensure they go back.

In some instances, they will exert violence to ensure they receive an even longer sentence.

Potential Consequences And Solutions

Unfortunately, politicians and statesmen aren’t helping the issue. For instance, during the administration of Prime Minister Abe, the rich-poor gap widened alarmingly quickly.

Shortly after there was a sales tax hike, first to 8% and now it’s at 10%. This doesn’t help senior citizens with low-paying pensions.

The potential consequences of this crime trend could get worse if something doesn’t change now. Not only does it signify burdens on families, working youth, and other institutions, it also shows a shift in ideas around traditional family values.

Initiatives in the Works

However, not all is bleak. There are a number of programs in the works to help alleviate the problem. Things like increasing welfare and pension payments are under consideration.

But no one knows as of yet how these initiatives will pan out for the future or if these will solve the problem.

It would make more sense, and be less vexing to taxpayers, to have an apartment-like facility for these elderly people.

They could put in a portion of their pension and the state could pay the rest with the promise of housing, food, and paid expenses. But, neither the trend of elderly crime nor an easing of finances will be lowering any time soon.

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.