Silver shoplifters steal food as Abe cuts welfare to trim debt

Elderly feeling squeeze turn to theft; one got two years for rice

by Yoshiaki Nohara and Andy Sharp

Bloomberg

Fumio Kageyama was 67 when he first turned to crime, making an unsuccessful attempt to rob a drunken passenger on a train in March 2008.

Given a suspended prison 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, who spent 40 years as a construction worker on projects including the Takashimaya Co. department store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward and a bicycle-racing track in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, is part of a growing number of silver shoplifters. After he became too old to work, he wound up on the streets and turned to petty theft. 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 said in an interview at a Tokyo halfway house earlier this year, his hair cropped short and his skin tanned from years of outdoor work. “I never did it when I had a job.”

Crimes committed by the nation’s elderly have doubled in the past decade and shoplifters are now more likely to be over 65 than juvenile. With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe planning to cut welfare further in August to rein in the national debt, and some 4.47 million people set to join the ranks of retirees in the next 10 years, the senior citizens crime wave is a foretaste of the challenges the country faces from a rapidly aging population.

“Crime is one of the problems regarding the elderly, along with pensions, nursing care, and the increased welfare burden,” said Koichi Haji, executive research fellow at NLI Research Institute in Tokyo, an affiliate of Nippon Life Insurance Co., Japan’s biggest life insurer. “The government doesn’t know what to do. There is no underlying idea of how to deal with the falling population.”

Abe is caught between trying to curb a national debt that the International Monetary Fund estimates will reach 245 percent of the economy this year and a growing army of pensioners who will make up about a third of the population by 2035. With Abe trying to cut welfare and spur inflation, and a dwindling number of younger people to look after the aged, more elderly citizens are turning to crime.

Criminal offenses by those 65 or older doubled to 48,544 in 2012 from 2002, with shoplifting accounting for 59 percent, according to the National Police Agency. Total crime declined 17 percent during the period. About 158 senior citizens per 100,000 committed offenses in 2012, up from 103 a decade ago.

“Senior citizens shoplift lunches and bread out of poverty, and they also steal because they are lonely and isolated,” said Yusuke Ishikawa, a special assistant to the director of the supervision division at the Justice Ministry. “The current trend is probably going to continue because the overall population is aging rapidly.”

The nation’s social welfare spending rose to a record ¥103 trillion in the year that ended in March 2011, about 22 percent of gross domestic product, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS). Pensions cost about ¥52 trillion, or more than half of the total spending. Medical costs were ¥32 trillion.

“The current level of pensions is unsustainable, the payments have to be reduced,” NLI Research’s Haji said. “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 the elderly arrested for shoplifting rose to 28,673 in 2012, 46 percent more than the 19,645 juvenile arrests, according to the NPA.

The real figures may be even higher because many cases of theft by senior citizens aren’t reported, said Yuji Ozaki, a security officer at Zenkoku Security Guard Co. in Tokyo.

Seniors steal all sorts of food — sashimi, rice balls, sweets, beef, sake and eel — in bags, pockets, sleeves and socks, Ozaki said.

Some steal even when they aren’t really hungry because the traditional support system is breaking down and they have become isolated from society, added Ozaki, who works at supermarkets, drugstores, shopping malls and department stores.

“Loneliness and frugality play a major role,” he said. “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 in the neighborhood.”

The number of seniors living alone will rise 54 percent to 7.17 million in 2030 from 4.66 million in 2010, according to the IPSS. By 2035, a third of all Japanese will be 65 or older, up from 23 percent in 2010, according to the institute.

“Shoplifting by elderly folks has surged,” Koh Fukui, an executive officer at National Shoplifting Prevention Organization, said in Tokyo. “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.”

To manage the costs stemming from the aging society, the government aims to push back the pension age to 65 from 60 in stages through 2025. At the same time, Abe may raise the sales tax to as much as 10 percent by 2015 if economic conditions allow it. The fiscal 2013 budget calls for a ¥67 billion reduction in welfare public assistance over about three years, starting in August.

As more elderly citizens turn to crime, the prison population is aging. 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 Justice Ministry. The government spent ¥8.3 billion to build facilities with elevators, handrails and ramps at three prisons in 2009 and 2010, to cater to elderly criminals.

Many older inmates don’t need work, just care, said Tatsuya Ota, a law professor who specializes in criminal justice at Keio University in Tokyo.

“Is an 80-year-old man able to get training to operate a forklift?” Ota said. “It takes huge manpower just to keep elderly inmates behind bars and their illnesses are boosting costs and adding to strains on prison staff.”

Life outside prison has been hard for Kageyama. When he was released from Nagoya Prison in Aichi Prefecture in September, he had about ¥20,000 and nobody to rely on.

Now 72, he lives in a room with a rotting floor that’s barely large enough for a bed. There’s no bath or shower. He pays ¥200 to have a shower at a local business after work. Once a week he goes to a public bath.

He survives on welfare checks and a minimum-wage job cleaning the streets in his native Shinjuku Ward. His friends told him the government may pare back welfare payments, which cover his medical bills.

“It’s tough,” Kageyama said by phone earlier this month. “I eat mostly outside when I’m working. Less money means I have to have something cheaper and cut my visits to the public bath.”

  • Paldo

    Abe is the biggest thief. He stole the nation! He pinches money from the old and vulnerables to pay for his expansionism and militarism. With 245% of the GDP debts, assuming interest rate is the low 1%, the JP government has to forge 2.45% of the GDP JUST to pay the interest. In short, he is covering the nation’s bankruptcy and draw the attention of many to something else.

  • David Varnes

    The article is a bit misleading, however. If the rise in elderly crime is figured from 2002 to 2012, how would an Abe policy announced in 2013 have any impact whatsoever on these figures? Its all pure speculation.