It’s never too late to turn to a life of crime. Fumio Kageyama was 67 when he first crossed the line, making an unsuccessful attempt to rob a drunken passenger on a train in March 2008. Given a suspended jail sentence, Kageyama was caught two months later stealing a bowl of rice and pork from a supermarket. This time he went to prison for two years.
Kageyama spent four decades as a construction worker on projects including the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district and a bicycle racing track in Maebashi, Gunma prefecture. It was hard but honest work. Now he’s part of a growing number of what the Japanese call silver shoplifters. Released from detention, he was caught again in April 2011 stealing hot dog buns and fried noodles. “It wasn’t great to get caught, but I just didn’t give a damn,” he says in an interview at a halfway house, his hair cropped short and his skin tanned from a lifetime of outdoor labor. “I never did it when I had a job because I didn’t want to cause anyone trouble.”
Crimes committed by Japan’s elderly have doubled in the past decade, and shoplifters are now more likely to be over 65 than juveniles aged 14 to 19. With Prime Minister Shinzō Abe planning to cut welfare further in August to rein in the national debt, and some 4.5 million people joining the ranks of retirees in the next 10 years, the senior citizens crime wave offers a glimpse of the challenges Japan faces in the coming years. “Crime is one of the problems regarding the elderly, along with pensions, nursing care, and the increased welfare burden,” says Koichi Haji, executive research fellow at the NLI Research Institute in Tokyo, an affiliate of Nippon Life Insurance, Japan’s biggest life insurer. “The government doesn’t know what to do.”
Abe is caught between trying to curb a gross national debt that the International Monetary Fund estimates will reach 245 percent of the economy this year and placating pensioners who will make up about a third of the population by 2035. With a dwindling number of younger people to care for them, more elderly are turning to crime, often out of hunger.
Criminal offenses by those 65 or older reached 48,544 in 2012, with shoplifting accounting for 59 percent, according to the National Police Agency. Total crime in Japan actually declined 17 percent over the last decade. About 158 senior citizens per 100,000 committed offenses in 2012, up from 103 a decade earlier.
“The current level of pensions is unsustainable; the payments have to be reduced,” says Haji at NLI Research. “Elderly people are gradually digging into their savings, and the rate at which they dig into those savings will accelerate.” As their assets dwindle, the incentive to steal rises. The number of elderly arrested for shoplifting rose to 28,673 in 2012, 46 percent higher than the 19,645 juvenile arrests for the same offense, according to the National Police Agency.
The real figures may be even higher because many cases of theft by senior citizens aren’t reported, says Yuji Ozaki, a security officer at Zenkoku Security Guard in Tokyo. Grandpas and grandmas steal bento boxes, sashimi, rice balls, sweets, beef, sake, and eel—in bags, pockets, sleeves, and socks, Ozaki says.
Some steal even when they aren’t hungry. “Senior citizens … also steal because they are lonely and isolated,” says Yusuke Ishikawa, a special assistant to the director of the supervision division at the Ministry of Justice. The traditional support system is breaking down and the elderly are cut off from society, says Ozaki, who works at supermarkets, drugstores, and department stores. “In the old days, someone used to talk to them when they shopped downtown. But now they only have big stores nearby, and nobody talks to them. I think they get kind of frustrated and do it when they lose interaction with the neighborhood.”
The number of Japanese seniors living alone will rise 54 percent to 7.2 million in 2030 from 4.7 million in 2010, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. “Many worked tirelessly through Japan’s boom years, and when they hit 60 or 65, they realized they were no longer needed. That’s what’s happening in Japan,” says Koh Fukui, an executive officer at the National Shoplifting Prevention Organization.
Prisons are feeling the impact of their new inmates. About 8 percent of those who went to prison in 2011 were over 65, compared with 3.6 percent a decade ago, according to the Ministry of Justice. In 2009 and 2010 the government spent 8.3 billion yen ($831 million) to build new facilities at three prisons equipped with elevators, handrails, and ramps. “It takes huge manpower just to keep elderly inmates behind bars, and their illnesses are boosting costs and adding to strains on prison staff,” says Tatsuya Ota, a law professor who specializes in criminal justice at Keio University.
Life outside jail has been hard for Kageyama. When he was released from prison in September, he had about 20,000 yen and nobody to rely on. Now 72, he lives in a room with a rotting floor barely large enough for a bed. He pays 200 yen to shower at a local business after working his minimum-wage job cleaning the streets of Shinjuku. He gets welfare, yet friends tell him the government may pare back welfare payments, which cover his medical bills. “It’s tough,” Kageyama says. “I eat mostly outside when I’m working. Less money means I have to [eat] something cheaper and cut my visits to the public bath.”