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Japan faces a wave of crimes perpetrated by elderly people. The proportion of crimes committed by people over 65 has been steadily increasing for 20 years.
We are in Hiroshima, in a house of transition destined to delinquents who are about to be released from prison and, therefore, to reintegrate into the community.
There Toshio Takata, 69, explains that he broke the law because he was poor. I wanted a place to live for free, even if it was behind bars.
“I reached retirement age and I ran out of money, so it occurred to me that maybe in prison I could live for free,” says Takata.
“I grabbed a bicycle, took it to the police station and told the man there: ‘Look, I stole this,'” he continues.
The plan worked. That was the first crime of Takata, and he committed it with 62 years. The Japanese courts treat robberies as something serious, so he was sentenced to one year in prison .
Small, thin and tending to laugh, Takata does not look like a regular criminal at all, let alone someone who can threaten a group of women with a knife . But after being released from his first sentence, this is exactly what he did.
“I went to a park and threatened them, I did not intend to harm them, I just showed them the knife, waiting for one of them to call the police, and one did it,” explains Takata.
In total, Takata spent half of the last eight years in prison.
I ask him if he likes being in jail. He makes me see that he has an additional financial income: he still charges the pension even though he is inside.
“It’s not like I like it, but there I can be free,” he says. “And when I go out, I have some money saved, so it’s not that bad.”
An upward trend
Takata is an example of a surprising trend in Japanese crime. In a society that is remarkably respectful of the law, a growing proportion of crimes are committed by people over 65 years of age.
In 1997, this age group represented approximately one in 20 convictions, but 20 years later the figure increased to more than one in five, a rate that far exceeds the growth of those over 65 as a proportion of the population (although now they are more than a quarter of the total).
Like Takata, many of these older criminals are repeat offenders . Of the 2,500 people over 65 convicted in 2016, more than a third had more than five previous convictions.
Another example is Keiko (not her real name). With 70 years, small and with a good presence, she also tells me that poverty was her downfall .
“I could not get along with my husband, I had nowhere to live or where to stay, so stealing became my only option, ” he explains. “Even 80-year-old women who can not even walk commit crimes, because they have no food or money.”
With Keiko we talked a few months ago in the hostel of an ex-offender. They told us that since then they arrested her again and that she is now serving a prison sentence for having stolen from a store.
The most common crime
Theft, mainly in stores, is by far the crime most committed by elderly people. They mostly steal food worth less than 3,000 yen (about US $ 25) in shops they visit regularly.
Michael Newman, a demographer born in Australia who works at the research company Custom Products Research Group, based in Tokyo, says it is very difficult to live with the “miserable” basic pension in Japan.
In a report published in 2016, Newman calculated that only with the costs of rent, food and medical care the beneficiaries of the pension end up in debt if they do not have other income. And that before paying for heating or clothes.
Before, it was usual for children to take care of their parents, but in the provinces the lack of economic opportunities led many young people to move, so parents have to take care of themselves.
“Retirees do not want to be a burden to their children, if they can not survive on the pension, they feel that the only way to not be a burden is to have them put in jail,” explains Newman.
Recidivism is a way of “going back to prison”, where there are three meals a day and no bills, he says.
Newman notes that suicide is also becoming increasingly common among the elderly. It is another way to fulfill what some consider “their duty to retire”.
Loneliness, another cause
The director of With Hiroshima, the transition center where I met Toshio Takata, also believes that the changes in Japanese families contributed to the crime wave among the elderly, but he emphasizes the psychological consequences of these changes, not the financial ones.
“The relationship between people has changed, people are more isolated, they can not find their place in this society, they can not stand loneliness,” says Kanichi Yamada, 85, who was taken from the rubble of his house after the launch of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima when I was a child.
“Among the elders who commit crimes, many experienced a turning point in the middle of their life, there is a trigger, they lose their wife, or a son, and they can not deal with that … Generally, people do not if someone takes care of them and helps them, “adds Yamada.
Takata’s explanation of resorting to crime as a consequence of poverty is just an “excuse,” suggests Yamada. The core of your problem is loneliness . And a factor that can lead to recidivism, he speculates, is knowing that in jail they have company.
It is true that Takata is alone in the world . His parents died, and he lost contact with his two older brothers, who do not respond to his calls. He also lost contact with his two ex-wives and his three children.
I ask him if he thinks that things would be different if he had a wife and family. It says yes.
“If they had been there to support me, I would not have done this,” he says.
Michael Newman explains that the Japanese government expanded the capacity of prisons and recruited more women as prison guards (the number of elderly women who commit crimes is increasing particularly rapidly, albeit from a low proportion). He also adds that the cost of medical treatment of people in prison is increasing.
To all that we must add other changes, as I see for myself in a prison in Fuchu, on the outskirts of Tokyo, where almost a third of the inmates are over 60 years old.
In the Japanese prisons there are many military parades, accompanied by shouts. But here these exercises are increasingly difficult to fulfill.
I see a couple of gray-haired inmates in the back of a squad struggling to keep up. One carries crutches.
“We had to improve the facilities, ” says Masatsugu Yazawa, the prison’s education chief. “We put handrails and special bathrooms, there are classes for older criminals.”
He takes me to see one of these classes, which starts with a karaoke version of a popular song, The R eason I was B orn , about the meaning of life. They encourage the inmates to sing. Some seem quite moved.
“We sing to show them that real life is out of prison, that happiness is there,” says Yazawa. “But still many think that life in prison is better , and come back.”
Michael Newman argues that it would be much better, and much cheaper, to care for the elderly without the cost of court proceedings and incarceration.
“In fact, in our company we paid for a model for the construction of a complex for retirees, in which they would give half of their pension but they would get food, accommodation and medical attention in exchange.” They could sing with karaoke or play ” gatekeeper”. ball ‘(a Japanese game) with the other residents and they would have relative freedom, it would cost much less than what the government is spending at this moment, “says Newman.
But it also suggests that the tendency of Japanese courts to impose custodial sentences for theft “is a bit strange, in terms of a penalty that really fits the crime.”
“The theft of a sandwich of 200 yen (less than US $ 2) could it lead to a bill worth 8.4 million yen (over US $ 750,000) for a two-year sentence,” he wrote in his report of 2016.
It might seem like a hypothetical example, but I met an old man in prison with an almost identical experience. He had been sentenced to two years in prison for his second crime: stealing a pot of peppers worth US $ 3 .
Morio Mochizuki, who manages the security of some 3,000 retail outlets in Japan, says that the courts are becoming tougher on shoplifters.
“Although stealing only a piece of bread says Masayuki Sho, Prison Service of Japan, it was decided in court that it is appropriate was that they went to jail Therefore, we must show them the way. How to live in society without commit crimes . “
I do not know if the prison service taught this lesson to Toshio Takata, but when I ask him if he is already planning his next crime, he says no.
“No, enough is enough,” says Takata.
” I do not want to do it again, I will be 70 years old, I will be old and I will be weak next time, I will not do it again”, he concludes.