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Can Hirokazu Kore-eda’s success with ‘Shoplifters’ shed some light on poverty in Japan?

by Jake Adelstein

Contributing Writer

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda recently won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for “Shoplifters,” a critically acclaimed family drama that was partially inspired by real-life events.

It attempts to depict a slice of life in which people are struggling to make ends meet, a set of circumstances that can be easily forgotten about unless you’re unfortunate enough to be facing the same financial hardship.

According to the Mainichi Shimbun, shoplifting nationwide is estimated to set the country back about ¥400 billion ($3.6 billion) each year. Studies by the National Police Agency and other organizations indicate that the majority of shoplifters are motivated by economic strife, especially the elderly. According to the National Police Agency, 72 percent of all cases involving a person aged 80 or older who are arrested for shoplifting involve food. Eighty-three percent of all such arrests involve theft committed at a supermarket. These figures speak for themselves.

“Shoplifters” depicts an impoverished family that, while living on a grandmother’s meager — and fraudulent — pension, sends their children to steal from stores. The family lives in a house owned by the grandmother (Kirin Kiki), who keeps her ex-husband’s photo on a Buddhist altar and draws out his pension every month to supplement her own. It’s the family’s only steady source of income.

The parents — mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and father (Lily Franky) — earn minimum wages doing part-time work. Nobuyo’s younger sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), works at a “JK”-themed sex shop. JK stands for joshi kosei (female high school students). The family supplements its low income by shoplifting.

Kore-eda, who also wrote the screenplay, said in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun that the film is first and foremost a universal look at the definition of a family. However, he also wanted to draw attention to the invisible people in society and the social problems that are being overlooked. He said he was inspired by media reports about people fraudulently claiming pensions when he was writing the script for the movie. It turns out that several families in recent years might fit this description.

In February 2015, police in Kagawa Prefecture arrested a 25-year-old part-time worker and his 26-year-old wife on charges of theft for making their 6-year-old son steal toys from a mall. The boy was instructed to steal several figurines worth ¥89,000, which he in turn handed to his mother waiting outside. The father then sold them at a recycling shop. The family lived together with a 2-year-old daughter.

In March 2015, police in Osaka arrested a 36-year-old father and 33-year-old mother on theft charges for making their three children: two boys aged 12 and 14, and their 9-year-old daughter, repeatedly engage in theft. On Oct. 25, 2014, the parents are believed to have ordered the children to steal three sets of fishing equipment worth ¥17,000 from a retail store. Upon being confronted about the theft, the parents denied the charges and claimed the children acted on their own volition. However, security camera footage and telephone emails back and forth between the parents provided evidence that was conclusive enough for the police to press charges. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the family often went fishing together and that they had carried out the crime in several other fishing shops before finally being caught. The younger children were taken into protective custody, while the 14-year-old son was tried as a juvenile and sent to reform school.

In March 2017, a mother and an adopted son were arrested and charged by police in Saitama Prefecture with theft. The pair were accused of ordering another son and 6-year-old daughter to steal toy robots and other merchandise worth roughly ¥130,000. The pair then sold off the toys for cash. The mother reportedly told police that the family was having a hard time getting by.

One can imagine that the above cases are a mere drop in the ocean when you consider the billions of yen that are lost each year to shoplifting. Government figures show that as many as 1 in 6 children live in poverty, which suggests that the problem is perhaps more widespread than you might think.

A veteran detective in the Metropolitan Police Department who has handled cases of theft for 20 years believes shoplifting is a microcosm of all social ills.

“There have always been people of all ages doing it for a kick: kids, housewives, retiree,” he says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Nowadays, however, we are catching people stealing sashimi, bread, daily essentials, etc. The children and elderly we catch are often motivated by simple hunger. They’ve fallen through the invisible safety net and end up in custody.”

Those who live on the fringes of society are often extremely visible to the police.

If Kore-eda’s film is able to shine a spotlight on those among us who are struggling with poverty, then that could ultimately lead to something of a happy ending. For the time being, however, those who find themselves living on the fringes of society and feel they have to resort to shoplifting in order to get by can find themselves in the country’s final “safety net” — a jail cell.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.