CNBC published on Easter Sunday a terribly sad story about Japan’s ageing population: many of those who are retired and should be enjoying their twilight years playing the Japanese versions of bingo and bridge are instead becoming recidivist offenders. That’s right, in Japan over a third of all shoplifting offences are committed by those over 60 years old and, of the repeat offenders within that age bracket, 40 per cent have committed the same crime more than six times.

This does appear somewhat amusing (the CNBC report calls them “silver-haired crooks”) but the fact that academics believe that recidivism rates are so high because many elderly Japanese want to be in prison is distressingly sad. Prison, despite its obvious drawbacks, offers free food, accommodation and healthcare. All of these things are attractive when “a single Japanese retiree with minimal savings has living costs more than 25 per cent higher than the meagre basic state pension of Y780,000 ($6,900) a year” even if these retires subsist on “a frugal diet and dirt-cheap accommodation”. Prison also has this additional attraction: support and a cure for loneliness. According to Akio Doteuchi, a senior researcher on social development at the NLI Research Institute in Tokyo:

“The ratio of people who receive public assistance is highest since the end of the war. About 40 per cent of the elderly live alone. It’s a vicious circle. They leave prison, they don’t have money or family so they turn immediately to crime.”

Mr Doteuchi is worried that the geriatric crime wave is growing and that the prison system as a whole could be “overrun” by elderly inmates. Retiree crime is rising more quickly than Japan’s general demographic ageing (by 2060 40 per cent of a reduced Japanese population will be over the age of 65). Between 1991 and 2013, the number of elderly inmates in jail for repeating the same offence six times has climbed 460 per cent.

This is a social problem – no country can be said to have a healthy society where elderly people would rather be in prison than outside of it. But it is also an economic problem, part of the growing burden that Japan’s ageing population is placing on its finances. The theft of a Y200 sandwich can earn a two-year prison sentence, say academics, at an Y8.4m cost to the state. This is obviously “a woefully inefficient way for the government to target welfare spending at those who most need it”. Just add it to the list of demographic problems that Japan will have to cope with in the decades to come…

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...