Why Are Elderly People in Japan Shoplifting?

  • NEWS
  • Numbers don’t lie: there is a trend going on in Japan that is seeing the number of elderly people committing petty crimes go up. Among these crimes, the top one is shoplifting. Upon seeing these numbers, researchers and demographers became puzzled as they tried to come up with a good hypothesis that could explain the shocking trend.

    by Martin Danker

    As one of the world’s largest economies and a country that prides itself on its small wealth inequality gap, demographers found this steady increase in numbers of elderly shoplifters quite intriguing. To understand what was going on, they had to look into Japan’s institutions to see if there were any loopholes or problems that the elderly could end up facing.

    Solving the Puzzle

    Japan has a very tough justice system, and courts won’t let shoplifters get away with their actions so easily. To discourage people from shoplifting, criminals can end up facing huge sentences even for stealing the cheapest item at a grocery store. The sentences don’t make much sense when considering the cost on taxpayers, but they serve as an enormous deterrent; that is, unless you want to go to jail. Sadly, that is exactly what some Japanese elderly want.

    Japan’s pension system is not enough to cover all costs of living, and thus if older people have no other source of income or savings, they would end up in debt by doing simple things like paying rent, gas, water, healthcare, and food. To deal with this, some people aged over 60 have come up with a simple solution. By committing a petty crime like shoplifting, they can end up in prison, where they will receive three meals a day and healthcare. Ergo, they hit the jackpot.

    To make things worse, the number of second offenders is also increasing.

    Loneliness is another reason the elderly might turn to crime. When having no family around to support them, whether it was due to loss of life or because they never married, people try to do something to cope with the situation. That loneliness creates acts of desperation, which in turn makes older people commit those petty crimes.

    Life in Prison

    Prisons in Japan are seeing an increase in capacity as the number of prisoners continues to rise.

    Life in prison is by no means jolly. Prisoners have to do certain activities, and the elderly can’t keep up with everything they are meant to do. Additionally, prisons’ have very strict rules that can add on to that feeling of loneliness and isolation since inmates are only allowed to talk to other inmates at certain times and in a very low voice.

    However, the benefits outweigh the cons, and people trying to be incarcerated find comfort in knowing that they have three meals a day, healthcare, and a roof over their head.

    Once inside, many inmates start considering life in prison as the only type of life they can have. This creates a problem because they no longer think of the possibility of having a life outside of prison, accepting the silent confinement the cells’ walls provide to them as their new home.

    An Unfathomable Future

    The heartbreaking realization that some old and impoverished people are committing crimes so that they can have a warm bed and food on their plates highlights one of the biggest problems Japan is facing as its population continues to age. By 2026, 40% of Japan’s population will be comprised by the elderly, which could become a colossal burden on current institutions, families, and the working youth.

    During Prime Minister Abe’s administration, the gap between the rich and the poor has also started to widen. This, in addition to the the sales tax increases to 8% and then to 10% have created major problems to individuals and families, particularly those facing poverty.

    The alarming suicide rates among pensioners also showcase the difficulties retirees face. There’s always a dream or aspiration of what life after retirement will be like. After all, society as a whole tends to meticulously prepare for it. However, things can be far more complicated in reality. Older people might not be able to travel as much as they had wished due to age, sudden long-term illnesses can end up changing all plans, and crippling economics can take tolls on savings accounts and pensions. Encountering these many problems and the difficulty to adjust to change has contributed to the high number of suicides we see today.


    The recent trends in the number of elderly people shoplifting is a true eye-opener on the economical and social problems Japan is facing. It’s worth noting that Japan is investing on programs and institutions to alleviate the country’s issues regarding its aging population. However, the long-term effects of these initiatives and what the future holds continue to be a an unknown.

    The widening wealth gap, and the economic problems the recent tax increase and the COVID-19 pandemic have brought to Japan will also create bigger challenges that could see the number of offenders increase even further. The issue continues to be one that Japan needs to address and tackle as the number of elderly in the country increases year after year and the birthrate remains stagnant.