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Japan’s elderly see jail as a solution to their loneliness

MAN CROSSING THE SHIBUYA SCRAMBLE
MAHATHIR MOHD YASIN | Shutterstock
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To avoid "solitary death," an increasing number of the country's senior citizens are turning to a life of petty crime.

The aging of the West is matched by a similar phenomenon in Japan, a wealthy country which in many ways—including climate, habits, and diet—is similar to European countries such as Italy; in fact, Japan and Italy have the longest average lifespan in the world. But this circumstance, paired with a low tendency to have children, results in a large number of solitary senior citizens in a country whose average age is inexorably increasing. Loneliness is becoming a more widespread phenomenon than at any other point in recent centuries.

Japan is the country with the highest percentage of senior citizens. A little more than one quarter of the entire population (27.3 percent) is older than 65, and the Health Department forecasts that the percentage will reach 40 percent by the year 2060. Already today, there are more than 2 million people in Japan over 90 years old. Elderly women, who are often widows, are the group at greatest risk: without income, they find themselves having to face poverty and a lack of company (Linkiesta, March 20).

In Japan, this phenomenon has led a great number of elderly people—especially elderly widows—to have recourse to petty theft just so they can go to jail; economic difficulties are also a factor, but more than anything else, they do this so have someone with whom to talk and interact. In short, they go to jail so as not to be alone.

This phenomenon of solitude is so widespread that these people can even end up dying alone, and are often found dead in their homes after long periods of time. It’s so common that there is a word to describe it: kodokushi (literally “solitary death”).

In some cases, although financial and economic problems are also cited as reasons, many people are reluctant to request assistance from the government, preferring to die rather than suffer the humiliation of asking for help. In 2008, more than 2,200 people above the age of 65 died a “solitary death,” according to statistics from the Office of Social Services and Public Health (Wikipedia in Italian).

The statistics describe a country full of elderly people willing to do anything so as not to die alone: the number of arrests of elderly people are higher than those of any other demographic.

Convictions, according to the latest data from the police, have doubled in the last ten years, going from an average of 80 per 100,000 residents between 1995 and 2005 to 162 per 100,000 residents from 2005 to 2015. Nearly one in five women currently detained in Japanese prisons is 65 years old or older; nine out of ten elderly women convicted of crime have been found guilty of shoplifting (Bloomberg, March 16).

This article was first published in Aleteia’s Italian edition.

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