The face of crime in Japan is growing increasingly wrinkled these days as the nation’s elderly turn to a life of theft at an ever-escalating rate. According to CNBC‘s Leo Lewis, “About thirty-five percent of shoplifting offences are committed by people over the age of sixty,” while “forty percent of repeat offenders have committed the same crime more than six times.” However, the real surprise comes not in the actions but in the motivations of these would-be thieves.
As Japan’s cost of living continues to outpace the basic state pension by roughly twenty-five percent, many elderly can find a better life in prison than in their own homes. Considering that the theft of a 200 yen sandwich (roughly $1.76) can result in a two-year prison sentence, it doesn’t take much for the country’s older citizens to relocate to their local penitentiary, where they are guaranteed food, bedding, and health care (all to the tune of roughly 8.4 million yen, or just over $74,000, per inmate).
As Lewis concludes, “Prison, no matter how the spreadsheets are run, is a woefully inefficient way for the government to target welfare spending at those who most need it.” And with a projected forty percent of the population to be over sixty-five by the year 2060, this problem will not go away on its own.
These elderly inmates demonstrate that, while freedom may be among our most treasured virtues, it matters comparatively little when you can’t put food on your table. Ideally family members and friends could help with that problem but, for many, that is simply not the case. As Akio Doteuchi, a senior researcher on social development at Tokyo’s NLI Research Institute, notes, “About forty percent 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.” So, as Japan’s prisons continue to fill at an ever-increasing rate, the government is left searching for an alternative to incarcerating the elderly.
When Jesus told his disciples that they would always have the poor with them, he wasn’t exaggerating (Matthew 26:11). History demonstrates that poverty is an inevitable part of human society, though the reasons behind it are typically far more complex than laziness, bad luck, or any of the other explanations often offered. And while there is not space to dissect the reasons behind the issue today, it’s worth noting that, from the beginning, the Church found its greatest success when meeting the needs of the least of these was a central part of its mission. In fact, some of the Church’s earliest critics claimed that it was a religion that existed solely by catering to the poor and displaced—a charge that underestimated the diversity among the first generations of believers but reflected the priority placed on helping those in need.
That priority was a direct result of Jesus’ teachings. One of the last lessons Christ gave his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel was a parable that described how those who truly loved him would care for the least of these in their midst (Matthew 25:31–46). The point of that story was not to say that providing for the least of these earns our salvation but rather that such actions will result from a heart that is truly aligned with God’s. That’s why it’s so important that the sheep in the parable didn’t know that they were helping Jesus when they helped others.
Unfortunately, over the centuries the Church’s heart has often fallen out of sync with God’s in this regard. At times, that has happened by placing too much emphasis on helping the poor to the neglect of other aspects of the gospel message. However, a far more common mistake has been ignoring the least of these in our midst, and thus ignoring Christ as well.
D.L. Moody once said, “There are many of us that are willing to do great things for the Lord, but few of us willing to do the little things.” Spending a day at a local food shelter, giving a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter to the homeless person on the street, or any other small act of kindness to those in need may seem like a little thing to us, but it is a great thing in the eyes of God. Are you willing to serve Christ in that way today?