Elderly customers shop in a grocery store in Tokyo, Aug. 12, 2005. Photographer: Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Bloomberg News
Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) — More senior citizens are picking pockets and shoplifting in Japan to cope with cuts in government welfare spending and rising health-care costs in a fast-ageing society.
Criminal offences by people 65 or older doubled to 48,605 in the five years to 2008, the most since police began compiling national statistics in 1978, a Ministry of Justice report said.
Theft is the most common crime of senior citizens, many of whom face declining health, low incomes and a sense of isolation, the report said. Elderly crime may increase in parallel with poverty rates as Japan enters another recession and the budget deficit makes it harder for the government to provide a safety net for people on the fringes of society.
“The elderly are turning to shoplifting as an increasing number of them lack assets and children to depend on,” Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Chuo University in Tokyo and an author of books on income disparity in Japan, said in an interview yesterday. “We won’t see the decline of elderly crimes as long as the income gap continues to rise.”
Crime rates among the elderly are rising as the overall rate for Japan has fallen for five consecutive years after peaking in 2002. Over 60s accounted for 18.9 percent of all crimes last year compared with 3.1 percent in 1978, with shoplifting accounting for 80 percent of the total, the report said.
The trend has captivated Japan’s media, which include regular accounts of the latest thief or pickpocket as well as undercover footage of people shoplifting food in convenience stores and supermarkets.
Coverage intensified after a 79-year-old woman slashed two women with a knife near a Tokyo railway station in August. She wanted police to take care of her after she ran away from a shelter for the homeless, Kyodo English News reported at the time.
“Elderly crime is a serious problem that our society must shoulder in the years to come,” the government report said. “With baby boomers becoming elderly within five years, we have reached a state where we must make a fundamental review of anti- crime measures in a fast-ageing society.”
About a fifth of Japanese are 65 or older, almost twice the proportion in the U.S. and three times China’s rate. That figure will double to more than 40 percent by 2050, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. There will be twice as many elderly Japanese as there are children within five years.
The government aims to cut 220 billion yen ($2.3 billion) from social welfare spending in each of the five years starting 2006 as it seeks to balance the budget by 2011. As part of this plan, the government introduced a new health insurance system that would raise premiums for some elderly patients.
The initiative has stirred anxiety about pensions and health care, and Japan’s economic situation is doing little to help.
Industrial production tumbled for a third quarter in September as retail sales dropped for the first time in 14 months and household spending fell for a seventh month. Japan’s economy is at risk of deteriorating further as the global financial turmoil slows growth worldwide, Bank of Japan board member Seiji Nakamura said yesterday.
The number of households on welfare reached 1.1 million last year, an increase of 300,000 since 2001, according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
Japan ranks behind the U.S. at fourth-worst among 30 developed countries in terms of the number of people living on less than half the country’s median income, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last month.
“Some elderly, particularly men who lost their wives, even turn to crimes to be put in jail so they can be fed three times a day,” Yamada said.
Still, Japan’s weakening economy is not the only cause of elderly crime, Yamada said. The current generation of seniors grew up in the confusion of the aftermath of World War II, when crime rates in Japan were at their highest, he said.
“They don’t feel guilty because they were the generation who recorded the highest youth crime rates when they were young.”
Last Updated: November 13, 2008 21:02 EST
By Stuart Biggs and Sachiko Sakamaki