Japan's elderly are so alone that many will do anything to get into prison, where they hope they will be cared for

Japan has come a long, long way since the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but its progress is set to be halted by a creeping problem.

                            Japan's elderly are so alone that many will do anything to get into prison, where they hope they will be cared for
(Source:Getty Images)

Picking a new country to settle down in can be hard. But presented with the option of Japan, very few will decline. Despite its peculiarities - an obsession with anime culture, sexualization of the bizarre, and frankly ludicrous advertising to name a few - the positives far outweigh the negatives. Most of the country is drop-dead gorgeous, everything is pleasant and clean, the cuisine is lip-smackingly good, and the people are insanely polite. 

There's also the fact that it is a country very much on the up. Despite the devastation of the WW II nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the people have risen like a phoenix from the ashes, resurrecting Japan through a relentless work ethic that is the envy of the world.

Despite its moderate size, the country boasts the third largest economy in the world, technological advances in medicine that could be out of a science fiction novel, an excellent educational system, and a formidable industry.

Japanese workers are some of the most sleep-deprived on the planet (Source: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

However, the problems have begun creeping in. Initially minuscule, these black veins of impending disaster have grown noticeably since the turn of the century, threatening to derail the stellar progress achieved since the second world war.

The first and most obvious one, which has caused the rest of the world to stand up and take notice, stems from the very quality that many applaud them for: their work culture. 

A popular tale that one hears is about how workers who fall asleep at their desk are not woken up. Termed 'inemuri' or 'sleeping while present,' it is considered a preserve of employees exhausted by their commitment to hard work, rather than a sign of indolence.

And while that speaks volumes about the average Japanese citizen, that very commitment is often their undoing. Death by overworking is surprisingly common in the country, and is recognized by the term 'karoshi.'

The labor ministry even recognizes two types of karoshi: death from cardiovascular illness linked to overwork, and suicide following work-related mental stress.

The numbers are alarming. The government reported that as many as one in five employees were at risk of death from overwork.

Officially, several hundred deaths are linked to karoshi every single year and counting heart attacks, strokes, and suicides, more than 2,000 Japanese killed themselves due to work-related stress in 2016 alone.

Working 18 hour days is commonplace, with a government survey reporting that a quarter of Japanese companies have staff working more than 80 hours overtime a month, often unpaid. And 12% have employees breaking the 100 hours a month mark. Unsurprisingly enough, research shows that Japanese employees work significantly longer hours than their counterparts in the US, Britain and other developed countries and on average, take just 8.8 days of leave during the whole year.

On average, Japanese workers sleep for just 6-odd hours a day (Source: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

According to the US National Sleep Foundation's poll of sleeping habits around the world, Japanese workers sleep, on average, for just six hours 22 minutes on work nights – less than those in any other country. This exacerbates the problems further, leading to a host of issues such as increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. 

The government has attempted to counteract the rising deaths from karoshi by proposing to cap monthly overtime to 100 hours and introduced legal penalties for companies that exceed that limit. It remains to be seen whether these measures have the desired effect, though early signs are heartening. 

But that particular problem pales in comparison to one that is genuinely threatening to derail the country: its decreasing population.

While the Earth is shouldering the burden of an ever-increasing human population across the world, Japan is one of the few countries where the population is decreasing - the country's population is projected to decline from 127 million in 2015 to just 88 million by 2065. The primary reason for this has to do with the country's low fertility rate: at 1.4 births/woman, its one of the lowest in the world. Their immigrant population is also jarringly low. 98.5% of the people living in Japan are Japanese.

The former tidbit combined with the fact that Japan has the second lowest infant mortality rate and third highest average life expectancy means that the country, unfortunately, has the world's oldest populace. Japan has 65,692 centenarians living within its shores, a record, and future projections are equally depressing. The proportion of the population over 65 is expected to rise from 27% to 38% by 2065.

That, in turn, is directly responsible for the increased burden on the younger workforce, who feel compelled to make up from the decreasing productivity from the aging older generation and thus overwork themselves to the point of death. In 2015, one senior citizen was supported by an average of 2.3 workers, but this ratio is expected to be one senior to 1.3 workers by 2065, according to official data.

Despite there being an array of solutions to tackle the issue, in typical Japanese fashion, the country decided that they had to up the 'terribly outdated' age of retirement from 65 to 75. While the sentiment behind such a decision is sound, there are doubts whether it would hold up practically, despite supporters of the resolution stating that the government is taking into account the longer life expectancy and changing social attitudes to aging. 

The aging population, the women, in particular, have more pressing matters on their mind than working. A report by Bloomberg has pointed out a dispiriting trend that has begun to rise in the country: at least one in five women in Japanese prisons is a senior citizen, with nine out of the ten incarcerated for a petty crime like shoplifting. Furthermore, several are repeat offenders.

According to Reuters, of those jailed in 2016, 36% of those older than 60 were in prison for at least the sixth time, which is far higher than the 16% for all prisoners incarcerated that year. The next biggest group consisted of first-time offenders, who made up 29% of prisoners 60 or older. 

It has worrying social implications and brings into question the mental health of a portion of the population that is most vulnerable to depression and other mental health problems.

Between 1980 and 2015, the number of elderly people in the nation living by themselves increased more than six-fold and is now nearing six million, with a 2017 Tokyo government survey finding that more than 50% of the seniors who were arrested for shoplifting lived alone, with a further 40% not having any family to turn to during their times of need. 

The issue has arisen, in part, because of a rapidly changing culture that is desperately trying to keep pace with the country's colossal technological strides. Previously, families and communities were tasked with taking care of the elderly population, but their ever increasing count, combined with the aforementioned cultural shift has meant that they have been left behind. 

And even if the senior has a family to turn to, the situation can still be dire. Yumi Muranaka, the head warden of Iwakuni Women's Prison, explains: "They may have a house. They may have a family. But that doesn’t mean they have a place they feel at home. They feel they are not understood. They feel they are only recognized as someone who gets the house chores done."

Reuters reported that the number of prisoners aged 60 or older has risen 7% from a decade ago to 9,308 and made up 19% of the entire prison population in Japan in 2016.

In comparison, that figure is 6% for the United States and about 11% for South Korea.

The elderly population is the most vulnerable (Source: Taro Karibe/Getty Images)


What was peculiar was that it was the elderly women portion of the demographic was more vulnerable than the elderly men - 50% of those women 65 or older who live alone also lived in poverty compared to 29% when it came to men.

Thus, seeing no other alternative, these women turn to crime in the hope that a prison sentence will provide them the refuge they so often hopelessly crave. 

Considering their plight, it's little surprise that they consider such a drastic solution viable either. The government hired specialized workers to help with activities such as bathing, though the task falls to guards at night. As a consequence, there are rising complaints from correctional officers who now feel their responsibilities are more akin to a nursing-home attendant. 

More than a third of female correctional officers have quit their job within three years, and Satomi Tanaka, a veteran officer at Tochigi's Women's Prison explained how her duties now included handling the inmates' incontinence and the problems they face: "They are ashamed and hide their underwear. I tell them to bring it to me, and I will have it washed."

The government has also been forced to shoulder this burden of increasing elderly prisoners by having to allocate extra funds to these prisons. The annual medical costs at correctional facilities crossed $6 billion Yen in 2015, which amounts to an 80% increase in the past decade.

To combat the problem, Japan's parliament passed a law in 2016 that looked to ensure these repeat criminal offenders and convicted felons get support from the country's welfare and social service systems, with prosecutors' offices and prisons now working closely with government agencies to give these citizens the care they need. However, how often is it that such a wide-ranging problem is solved with such broad strokes? 

Many of these women seek the relative comfort of prison because they see no other alternative. Some are in prison because they had nothing to live for outside prison walls and liked the semblance of order that incarceration forced upon them; some because of a debilitating loneliness; some because of an abusive family; some because of depression, and some because they just liked the thrill of the steal. 

While it may not represent all these prisoners, listening to the story of a woman reported by Bloomberg as Ms. N, while heartbreaking, puts the matter into a little bit of perspective and highlights the scope of the problem at hand. 80-year-old N has a husband, two sons, and six grandchildren but was still driven to steal. Why? She explained: "I was alone every day and feeling very lonely. My husband gave me a lot of money, and people always told me how lucky I was, but money wasn’t what I wanted. It didn’t make me happy at all."

"The first time I shoplifted was about 13 years ago. I wandered into a bookstore in town and stole a paperback novel. I was caught, taken to a police station, and questioned by the sweetest police officer. He was so kind. He listened to everything I wanted to say. I felt I was being heard for the first time in my life. In the end, he gently tapped on my shoulder and said, ‘I understand you were lonely, but don’t do this again.’ "

"I can’t tell you how much I enjoy working in the prison factory. The other day, when I was complimented on how efficient and meticulous I was, I grasped the joy of working. I regret that I never worked. My life would have been different."

"I enjoy my life in prison more. There are always people around, and I don’t feel lonely here. When I got out the second time, I promised that I wouldn’t go back. But when I was out, I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic."

Japan has its eyes firmly set on the future, but in doing so, is making a crucial error of ignoring its past.