In August, a 79-year-old woman went on a slashing spree in Tokyo’s bustling shopping and entertainment district of Shibuya, wounding two female passersby before being arrested by police.
The attacker reportedly said she was homeless, had no money and thought if she committed a crime the police would care for her.
Crimes committed by the elderly are on the rise. From petty theft to murder, the number of senior citizens arrested by police has surged alarmingly in the last decade. Experts say this results both from Japan’s swelling aging population and from deteriorating community ties, which have led to an insufficient support system for the aged.
The number of those over 65 who committed criminal offences increased almost fourfold from 1998 to 2007, up from 13,739 to 48,597 cases annually, according to National Police Agency statistics.
These figures have continued to swell in 2008. “With shoplifting being the most typical crime, there’s an uptrend in almost all types of crimes committed by the elderly,” said Koichi Hamai, professor at Ryukoku University Law School in Kyoto.
Japan is a rapidly graying nation. The number of those over 65 reached 28.19 million as of Sept. 15, constituting 22.1 percent of the total population and hitting a record high, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.
Hamai, an expert on criminal psychology, said that although the expanding gray population will skew the elderly crime figures, that is not the sole factor behind the increase in offenses.
Some elderly may be committing crimes intentionally so they can be put behind bars and under police care instead of facing a bleak future in a society unable to adapt to the newly evolving demographics, he said.
In late September, a 71-year-old man was caught shoplifting in a supermarket in Sapporo. According to news reports, police found ¥750,000 in his wallet, apparently money he had been saving from his monthly welfare payments. “I didn’t want to use my own money,” the man, who had been previously arrested for theft 14 times, reportedly said.
Tomomi Fujiwara, an Akutagawa Prize-winning writer and author of “Bosou Rojin,” (“Angry Old People”), said a sense of isolation resulting from a weakening of family and local ties is behind such crimes.
“In the past, blood ties and close-knit communities acted as a restraint on unacceptable behavior. Committing a crime was tantamount to social suicide. But with the growing number of elderly single or couple households, that isn’t the case any more,” Fujiwara said.
“Take shoplifting, for example. The social stigma linked to such crimes is virtually nonexistent today. An elderly shoplifter can get caught, released, go home and continue on with life without anyone being the wiser,” he said.
The Justice Ministry’s White Paper on Crime 2007 notes that the number of elderly repeat offenders has steadily increased over the years, reaching 20.3 percent of all repeat offenders in 2005. Theft and fraud were the most common offenses, together accounting for over 60 percent of all repeat offenses involving seniors.
To counter the trend, the Justice and the Health, Labor and Welfare ministries made a joint budget request in September for fiscal 2009 to establish support centers for elderly and mentally disabled people who have finished serving time.
“Prisons are turning into welfare facilities for the socially disadvantaged, and we need to do something about it,” a health ministry official said.
The goal is to socially rehabilitate people who are too old or mentally unfit by helping them find a place to go after being released from prison. It is still unclear, however, if the budget will be approved or the plan will succeed.
Those receiving welfare increased in 2007, and elderly households accounted for 497,665, or 45 percent, of all households on welfare, an increase of 5 percent from the previous year, according to the health ministry.
“Nights are long, especially for the old and poor,” said Canadian missionary Jean Le Beau, director of Sanyukai, a nonprofit organization that has been providing food, medical care and a place to sleep for the homeless who inhabit the Sanya district in eastern Tokyo, one of the poorer areas of the capital.
“For many, a television set is the only thing that keeps them company,” Le Beau said, stressing the importance of communication for those living in isolation.
Like the rest of Japan, Sanya has also seen its residents gray. Traditionally known as a town for day laborers, in recent years it has seen their numbers decline as the population aged, only to be replaced by foreign backpackers looking for budget accommodations.
Le Beau, who has worked with the organization for over 20 years, said that along with the various volunteer work Sanyukai carries out, he often helps area residents, many living in tents or tiny shelters, apply for welfare benefits and old-age pensions.
But just as importantly, the organization “provides a place for people to come and chat, to spend time together,” he said.
Hamai of Ryukoku University offered a bleak outlook on the future, with both the elderly population and crimes committed by seniors expected to keep rising.
“Understanding of the plight that these people endure, and a joint effort between both communities and the government is necessary to create effective safety nets,” Hamai said.
“But with trust in the government virtually nonexistent with the pension scandal and other persistent problems, I must say it’s not looking too good,” he said.