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A sad trend is emerging with the all too common crime of shoplifting. Although the total number of crimes recognized by authorities declined to 1.7 million in 2009 from a peak of 2.85 million in 2002 — with shoplifting leveling off at 140,000 to 150,000 cases yearly — more and more elderly people are reported to be shoplifting.

In 2009, 27,000 people aged 65 or older committed the crime — some 7.5 times more than 20 years before.

Traditionally shoplifting has been a juvenile crime. But the number of young people (14 to 19 years old) involved in shoplifting has been on the decline. It topped 40,000 in 2002, fell below 40,000 in 2003 and further dropped to below 30,000 in 2007.

In contrast, the number of people at least 65 years old against whom investigative authorities have taken some sort of action in connection with shoplifting has been on the rise. It was 11,000 in 2000, but topped 20,000 in 2004. It stood at 25,000 in 2006 and 2007, and slightly rose to 27,000 in 2008 and 2009.

It appears that loneliness of elderly people is behind the gradual increase in the number of shoplifters. In 2009, the Metropolitan Police Department of Tokyo studied the motives and lifestyle of 1,050 shoplifting suspects — 428 minors, 418 adults and 204 elderly people. Of the elderly, 55.4 percent were single and 40.2 percent were living alone. As many as 89.7 percent said they had few friends, if any, and 48 percent said they had no people to consult with about problems.

When elderly shoplifting suspects were asked about their emotional state, 23.9 percent cited loneliness. Half of the elderly suspects said they had nothing to live for. Some 80 percent of articles shoplifted by elderly people were food items, half of which were each priced at ¥1,000 or less.

In an effort to prevent recidivism, the MPD has started a campaign to get former suspects among the elderly involved in voluntary social activities. There must be things that local governments and ordinary citizens can do to help them. The most important thing is to prevent them from becoming isolated from communities and the people around them.