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Without hope for relatives: why retirees in Japan tend to go to jail

Some consider this the only way to avoid a lonely, poor and difficult life in freedom.

Mature Japanese woman in the prison work area Photo by Bloomberg

About 27% of the population of 126 million Japan is over 65 years old. The aging population has long complicated the work of the financial system and the country’s retail industry, but in recent years a new trend has emerged. Local traditions require the younger generation to care for aging relatives, but sometimes elderly people in the country are left alone and without means of subsistence. Seeing no other way out, they go to minor crimes to be sent to prison.

Thefts as a result of poverty

In October 2017 in Japan, a thief nicknamed “Ninja” was detained. According to police, over eight years he has committed more than 250 robberies for a total of 260 thousand dollars. Despite the increased attention of the police, for a long time the suspect was known only that he was wearing a black suit as a ninja. Hence the nickname.

Detectives described him as a man in great shape – he is strong, resilient and prefers to move on rooftops during burglaries rather than streets. But all this confused the police much less than the age of the offender – he was 74 years old. During the interrogation, the man said that if he was younger, they would never have caught him. Theft, he explained the reluctance to work.

Just a few weeks after the man’s arrest, the Japanese Ministry of Justice published areport on criminal activity among the elderly. From it followed that in 2016, almost 47 thousand Japanese over 65 were convicted of crimes, 2500 went to prison. Of these, about 70% have already served time in the past.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Every fifth woman in Japanese prisons is elderly. In nine out of ten cases, they are imprisoned for minor thefts in stores.[/perfectpullquote]

A survey of the Tokyo government in 2017 showed that more than half of convicted elderly people committed crimes alone. Of these, 40% either have no family, or rarely communicate with their relatives. Often these people explain that they have no one to turn to for help, so they go to theft.

The key reason for such statistics is poverty among pensioners. And this problem concerns not only Japan, but also South Korea. In 2018, the authorities announced that over the past five years, the frequency of crimes committed by people over 65 years of age has increased by 45%. The frequency of serious crimes, including murder, robbery and rape, increased by 70%.

Like Japan, South Korea is considered to be the country of an “aging population” – more than 14% of the population over 65 years of age. Many of them cannot provide for themselves due to low pensions and the lack of working prospects. Losing contact with society, such people turn to crime, considering it the only means of survival.

The difficulties of Japanese pensioners

Japanese Toshio Takata (Toshio Takata) is 69 years old, and he broke the law because of poverty. At least that’s how he told the BBC. “I got to retirement age, and then the money ran out. And I began to think that maybe I could live in prison for free. So I stole a bicycle, came to the police station and said: ““ Look, I stole it ”.”

Toshio Takate Photo BBC
Toshio Takate Photo BBC

Then Takate was 62 years old, and stealing a bicycle was his first crime in life. This is a minor offense, but it was enough to convict a man for a year in prison. Short and thin, after the end of his prison term, he again faced a lack of livelihoods. Without inventing anything else, he went to the nearest park, took out a knife and threatened passers-by. Someone called the police, and Takata again went to jail – he is still there.

“Not to say that I like it here, but I live here for free. And when I go out, I will have money saved. So everything is not so bad, ”the man said, meaning that the state continues to charge him a pension. And this philosophy is followed by more and more elderly Japanese. Another resident, 70-year-old Keiko, also explained her desire to go to prison with a lack of social security.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I could not get along with my husband. I had nowhere to live or spend the night. Theft was the only option. Even women over 80 years old, who are hard to walk on, go to crimes. They have neither food nor money.[/perfectpullquote]
resident of Japan

Journalist BBC communicated with an elderly woman shortly after she was released from prison. At the time of this writing, Keiko is serving a new term – for petty theft. This type of crime has become the most popular among the elderly. Often, they steal goods no more than 3,000 yen (about 1,800 rubles).

According to a demographic study by the Tokyo-based organization Custom Products Research Group, a pension in Japan hardly covers the needs of senior citizens. The prices for rent, food and medical services alone force the elderly to borrow money if there are no other sources of income besides the pension.

The problem is especially acute in the regions. In the past, traditions have taught young people to care for elderly relatives, but due to the lack of economic and career prospects, young people leave for cities with great potential, leaving elderly relatives to take care of themselves on their own.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Losing the support of loved ones, some pensioners find a solution in prison: they are provided with free treatment there, and they are fed three times a day. Others go for more radical measures, ending suicide.[/perfectpullquote]

“People are becoming more lonely and cannot cope with this loneliness,” says Kanichi Yamada, head of the rehabilitation center With Hiroshima. He believes that the reason for the growth of crimes among the elderly lies not only in poverty, but also in the psychological state of the elderly. They quarrel with loved ones and stop communicating, which ultimately leads them to prison.

According to Yamada, this is exactly what happened with Takata, 69, too. His parents are dead, he does not speak with the remaining two brothers. He also lost contact with two ex-wives and three children. In his years, he is all alone. “I would not go to these crimes if someone supported me,” said the pensioner.

Attempts by the government to remedy the situation

According to Bloomberg, in Japan there are no public or private rehabilitation programs to help older people at risk of being in prison. But the cost of maintaining them in custody is growing rapidly. In 2015, due to elderly people, total medical expenses in prisons amounted to $ 50 million, which is 80% more than in 2005. Prisons have to hire special workers to care for the elderly prisoners during the day, and at night this load goes to the guards.

In 2016, the Japanese parliament passed a law aimed at social support for older Japanese repeat offenders. Since then, the police have been working in conjunction with the authorities, trying to provide the elderly criminals with the necessary assistance for rehabilitation. In the meantime, prisons are equipped with handrails and special toilets, and in educational classes they provide classes for elderly prisoners.

78-year-old pensioner, sentenced to one and a half years in prison for shoplifting. A woman’s daughter comes to her once a month, calls her “miserable” and believes that she deserves her fate. “I think she’s right,” the pensioner admits. Photo Bloomberg

A BBC reporter visited one of them in the city of Futu: classes began with karaoke with the song “The reason I was born.” The crowd was urged to sing along, and some were enthusiastic about it. “We sing to show that there is real life outside the prison, and real happiness is there. But they still think that life in prison is better, and many will return, ”says the head of the education department in the prison of Futyu Masatsugu Yazawa.

However, the head of the organization Custom Products Research Group, Australian Michael Newman, believes that the government should improve the social welfare of older people at large, and not spend money on their comfortable life in prisons. He also believes that the current penalties for minor crimes are too harsh.

“Theft of a sandwich costing about a pound (about 85 rubles) can result in a fine of 580 thousand pounds (about 49 million rubles) or a two-year prison term,” says Newman This is true – the Japanese courts are very strict with store thieves, even if their booty is a loaf of bread.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Even if they stole a piece of bread, the court sentences them to imprisonment, and therefore we need to teach them how to live in society without committing crimes.[/perfectpullquote]
Masayuki Shaw
Japanese Prison Officer

It is difficult to say whether Toshio Takate will be released from prison with an understanding of how to return to the life of a law-abiding citizen. But, according to his words, he does not intend to go for a new crime. “I do not want to do this anymore, I will soon be 70 years old, and I will become old and weak by the next term. So I will not repeat it again. ”

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