Reported epidemic of elder shoplifting may not be what it seems
For the past several years the media has been reporting a marked increase in the incidence of shoplifiting among the elderly. Most recently, the Mainichi Shimbun ran an article focusing on the problem in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where the percentage of arrests of people over 65 for shoplifting has exceeded those for minor males. According to local police, in 2000 43.3 percent of shoplifting arrests were of boys between the ages of 14 and 19, while arrests of people over 65 accounted for only 20 percent. In 2005, the portions were equal: 28 percent each. Since then, the percentages for over-65s has fluctuated between 30 and 40, while for minors it’s been between 20 and 30.
The police blame the increase on “poverty and loneliness.” All of the older people they arrest say they are on fixed incomes and have already spent their monthly pension allotments when they are caught shoplifting. Some spend all their money on gambling because, according to the police, “gambling is the only social activity in their lives, since they have no relatives or friends.” In almost all cases, elderly people steal food and alcoholic beverages. One supermarket told the Mainichi that 80 percent of the people caught shoplifting on its premises are over 65. In the past, the manager would call “the guardians” of the perpetrators in order to be reimbursed, because most were minors, but they can’t do that with old people. “They usually have no one.”
Nationwide, this seems to be a trend. The National Police Agency reports that of the 104,827 shoplifiting arrests made in 2010, 27,362 were of persons over 65, 343 more than in 2009. Minors still accounted for more arrests, 28,371, but the number has been steadily declining over the past decade, while the number of older people being arrested has steadily increased.
Alarming? At least one blogger writes that, statistically speaking, it’s to be expected. Masamizu Kibashiri (an obvious pseudonym) points out that the fatalist tone of the reporting on elder shoplifting hides a salient and very apparent fact: The number of old people has risen sharply during the past decade while the number of minors has declined at almost the same rate. In the past 20 years, the over-65 population of Japan has jumped from 15 million to 27 million. Given this increase, the slighter rise in shoplifting arrests could actually be taken as being encouraging: Not as many older people are shoplifting as might be expected.
Kibashiri proposes a different statistical model for gauging the phenomenon: Number of elder arrests per 10,000 population of over-65s. Using that statistical model, he finds that the percentage of elder shoplifters has, in fact, risen significantly, from 2.8 in 1989 to 9.5 in 2009, with the largest jump coming around 2005. Obviously, there is a meaningful increase here, but the media needs to qualify its reporting of an “epidemic.”