TOKYO — There's been a bit of good news in Japan. Sort of.

The annual report on crime statistics, released earlier this month by the National Police Agency, showed a sixth-straight annual fall in recorded crimes. According to the figures, incidents of crime fell 4.7 percent to just over 1.8 million cases, all in a country with traditionally low rates of most forms of crime.

But beneath that drop lies a troubling surprise: a sharp increase in crime by Japan's growing elderly population.

“I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw a really old person stealing stuff from the shop,” said the manager at a 7-Eleven store outside Tokyo. “This little old guy was putting food in his pockets — I guess he thought we couldn’t see him. I didn’t know what to do with him,” laughed the manager, who asked to be identified just as Masa.

In 1998, fewer than 14,000 people over the age of 65 were arrested for non-traffic-related offenses. By 2007, the figures had nearly tripled to more than 48,500. By comparison, juvenile crime over the same period fell from just under 160,000 to just over 100,000. Street robberies and purse-snatching by juveniles actually halved between 2002 and 2007. While Japan’s demographics — a falling birthrate and the fastest-aging population on the planet — account for some of this, they certainly don’t tell the whole story.

Around 80 percent of this gray crime wave is petty theft, made up mostly of shoplifting and a little pick-pocketing. Low incomes and poor health are the most commonly cited reasons, and the truth is this may be just the tip of the iceberg, as most cases probably still go unreported.

While Japan has long prided itself on its egalitarianism and its own less cutthroat take on capitalism, inequality has risen in recent decades. In a 2008 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japan ranked fourth — just behind the U.S. — in terms of poverty in developed nations. The number of households depending on Japan’s less-than-generous welfare system now exceeds 1 million. Half of them are elderly.

Even before the current economic downturn, now hitting Japan with a vengeance, the government had been planning to trim the social welfare budget by 220 billion yen ($2.5 billion) each year to help reduce the enormous public debt. This will do little to ease the problems of those relying on a public pension system beset with errors and missing records. Meanwhile, public coffers are being strained in other ways, as the government is currently spending billions of yen on new prison wards designed to cater to the needs of a growing population of pensioner prisoners.

A Ministry of Justice report concluded, "Elderly crime is a serious problem that our society must shoulder in the years to come. With baby boomers becoming elderly within five years, we have reached a state where we must make a fundamental review of anti-crime measures in a fast-aging society."

Lack of money is not the only reason the elderly commit crimes: social isolation also plays a part. Last summer two people were attacked with knives in Shibuya, the center of Tokyo’s youth culture. The assailant, a 79-year-old woman, told the police she had nowhere to go and thought that if she got arrested, they would take care of her.

Prison officials have heard from elderly recidivist inmates that they deliberately re-offend after being released, so they can go back inside where they will at least be warm, fed, and have the companionship of people their own age.

Back at the 7-Eleven, Masa’s patience with light-fingered seniors is beginning to wear a little thin. “It’s happening a little more often recently, and one old boy, instead of apologizing, started shouting at one of the staff when he got caught. I told all the staff: if we catch any of them again, to call the police.”

Which may be just what some of them are hoping for.

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