Asia Life

Japan’s Future: Less Sex, More Shoplifting

Elderly shoplifters now outnumber thieving teens in Tokyo. What’s to be done?

Japan’s Future: Less Sex, More Shoplifting
Credit: Flickr (Gavin Kealy)

A troubling trend has emerged among Japan’s elderly – who represent around a quarter of its 128 million citizens – which is closely bound up with the nation’s greater demographic problems at hand. For the first time ever, Japanese aged 65 and up account for a higher percentage of shoplifting cases than do the country’s teens.

Bloomberg tells the story of 67-year-old Fumio Kageyama, who has been arrested a handful of times for petty theft. It began in 2008 when he unsuccessfully tried to rob a drunk train passenger, before being caught two years later stealing a bowl of fried rice and pork. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Apparently the lesson did not stick. In 2011 Kageyama was caught stealing hot dog buns and fried noodles.

In 2012, Tokyo’s elderly who resorted to stealing rose to 3,321 (24.5 percent of the total) while 3,195 juveniles (23.6 percent of the total) were arrested for the same crime. Kyodo reported that 70 percent of the items lifted by the elderly are consumables, as illustrated in Kageyama’s case.

Kageyama, who worked on construction projects for 40 years, told Bloomberg: “It wasn’t great to get caught, but I just didn’t give a damn. I never did it when I had a job.” This upsurge in senior citizens who are stealing is the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Japan’s demographic challenges are well documented. As noted in an article written by John W. Traphagan for The Diplomat this February, the nation’s population has been dropping for three consecutive years, with the decline in 2012 estimated at 220,000. Worse, births last year were also at an all-time low of 1,033,000, down 18,000 from the previous year.

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This trend is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Japan Family Planning Association found in January 2012 that 36 percent of males aged 16-19 had no interest in sex – that’s 19 percentage points higher than the same numbers reported in 2008. Meanwhile, 59 percent of females from the same age group reported they felt the same, up 12 percent from 2008. What’s more, the fertility rate is expected to drop from 1.39, where it stands now, to 1.35 by 2060 – and life expectancy is set to increase.

The result of these trends: the national population will shrink by around one-third by 2060. Of the decreased population, only half will fit into the age range of 15-65 while those over the age of 65 will account for 40 percent of the total. The silver shoplifting trend is but one more outgrowth of this complex crisis.

Facing the reality of increasing strain on a shrinking workforce, the government is taking steps to reform the nation’s flimsy social security and tax systems. However, no satisfying solutions are forthcoming. In fact, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to cut welfare in August, rather than increase government help for the nation’s burgeoning elderly population. With this cut, theft among the elderly could very well increase.

“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 the NLI Research Institute in Tokyo. “The government doesn’t know what to do. There is no underlying idea of how to deal with the falling population.”

Haji added, “Elderly people are gradually digging into their savings, and the rate at which they dig into those savings will accelerate.”

It is admittedly a knotty issue. In the next ten years 4.47 million Japanese will retire. Further, national debt is predicted to hit 245 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Japan’s welfare spending soared to 103 trillion yen ($1.02 trillion) in the year ended March 2011, of which pension outlays accounted for a whopping 52 trillion yen and medical costs 32 trillion yen. It is anyone’s guess how to find a balanced fix for this cocktail of problems.

Much has been made of Japan’s seemingly asexual “herbivore men”, who are often blamed for the country’s plummeting birth rate. Similarly, loneliness has been blamed for the numbers of elderly who are resorting to shoplifting. There could be an element of truth to this.

While many senior shoplifters may be motivated by economic factors, AFP reported that the bodies of deceased, single elderly citizens often lie undiscovered for weeks or even months. Further, 3.5 million elderly women and 1.4 elderly men in Japan live by themselves. Sadly, these numbers are expected to rise by 54 percent, to 7.17 million elderly citizens living alone by 2030, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, as reported by Bloomberg.

Faced with these complex realities, rather than crack down harshly some suggest a softer approach. As reported by The Asahi Shimbun, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office hired a part-time social worker in February to assess if assisting the needy could reduce petty crime. The verdict on the trial is still out.