An increasing number of elderly Japanese people are committing small crimes so they can live in prison for free. People aged 65+ now make up more than a quarter of the prison population in Japan
Crime figures show that about 35 per cent of shoplifting offenses are committed by people over 60. Within that age bracket, 40 per cent of repeat offenders have committed the same crime more than six times.
There is good reason, concludes a report, to suspect that the shoplifting crime wave in particular represents an attempt by those convicted to end up in prison — an institution that offers free food, accommodation and healthcare.
Michael Newman, an Australian-born demographer with the Tokyo-based research house, Custom Products Research Group points out that the “measly” basic state pension in Japan is very hard to live on.
In a paper published in 2016 he calculates that the costs of rent, food and healthcare alone will leave recipients in debt if they have no other income – and that’s before they’ve paid for heating or clothes. In the past it was traditional for children to look after their parents, but in the provinces a lack of economic opportunities has led many younger people to move away, leaving their parents to fend for themselves.
“The pensioners don’t want to be a burden to their children, and feel that if they can’t survive on the state pension then pretty much the only way not to be a burden is to shuffle themselves away into prison,” he says.
The repeat offending is a way “to get back into prison” where there are three square meals a day and no bills, he says.
Shoplifting, is overwhelmingly the biggest crime committed by elderly offenders. They mostly steal food worth less than 3,000 yen (£20) from a shop they visit regularly.
Even the theft of a Y200 sandwich can earn a two-year prison sentence, say academics, at an Y8.4m cost to the state.
Between 1991 and 2013, the latest year for which the Ministry of Justice publishes figures, the number of elderly inmates in jail for repeating the same offence six times has climbed 460 per cent.