Every aging society faces distinct challenges. But Japan, with the world’s oldest population (27.3 percent of its citizens are 65 or older, almost twice the share in the U.S.), has been dealing with one it didn’t foresee: senior crime. Complaints and arrests involving elderly people, and women in particular, are taking place at rates above those of any other demographic group. Almost 1 in 5 women in Japanese prisons is a senior. Their crimes are usually minor—9 in 10 senior women who’ve been convicted were found guilty of shoplifting.
Why have so many otherwise law-abiding elderly women resorted to petty theft? Caring for Japanese seniors once fell to families and communities, but that’s changing. From 1980 to 2015, the number of seniors living alone increased more than sixfold, to almost 6 million. And a 2017 survey by Tokyo’s government found that more than half of seniors caught shoplifting live alone; 40 percent either don’t have family or rarely speak with relatives. These people often say they have no one to turn to when they need help.
Even women with a place to go describe feeling invisible. “They may have a house. They may have a family. But that doesn’t mean they have a place they feel at home,” says Yumi Muranaka, head warden of Iwakuni Women’s Prison, 30 miles outside Hiroshima. “They feel they are not understood. They feel they are only recognized as someone who gets the house chores done.”Elderly women are also often economically vulnerable—nearly half of those 65 or older who live alone also live in poverty relative to the broader population, for example, compared with 29 percent of men. “My husband died last year,” one inmate says. “We didn’t have any children, so I was all alone. I went to a supermarket to buy vegetables, and I saw a package of beef. I wanted it, but I thought it would be a financial burden. So I took it.”Neither the government nor the private sector has established an effective rehabilitation program for seniors, and the costs to keep them in prison are rising fast. Expenses associated with elder care helped push annual medical costs at correctional facilities past 6 billion yen (more than $50 million) in 2015, an 80 percent increase from a decade before. Specialized workers have been hired to help older inmates with bathing and toileting during the day, but at night these tasks are handled by guards.
At some facilities, being a correctional officer has come to resemble being a nursing-home attendant. Satomi Kezuka, a veteran officer at Tochigi Women’s Prison, about 60 miles north of Tokyo, says her duties now include dealing with incontinence. “They are ashamed and hide their underwear,” she says of the inmates. “I tell them to bring it to me, and I will have it washed.” More than a third of female correctional officers quit their jobs within three years.
In 2016, Japan’s parliament passed a law aiming to ensure that recidivist seniors get support from the country’s welfare and social-service systems. Since then, prosecutor’s offices and prisons have worked closely with government agencies to get senior offenders the assistance they need. But the problems that lead these women to seek the relative comfort of jail lie beyond the system’s reach.