It’s an old cliche: the elderly complaining incessantly about today’s youth and their transgressions, calling them “young punks,” and insisting on the need for a crackdown on crime. But this, like many adages, has proven to be less than true, at least in Japan.

In fact, quite the opposite appears to be the case: 23,656 Japanese people aged at an above 65 came under police action between January and June, far more than the 19,670 youth between the ages of 14–19. These startling figures were conducted by Japan’s National Police Agency and reported on by Kyodo News on July 19.

Last year, a Bloomberg article noted that elder crime has doubled in Japan in the last decade, adding that petty violations like shoplifting make up the majority of their offences.

So what is leading these seniors to defy the law? The Bloomberg story quoted Koichi Haji, executive research fellow at the NLI Research Institute in Tokyo, as saying: “The current level of pensions is unsustainable; the payments have to be reduced … Elderly people are gradually digging into their savings, and the rate at which they dig into those savings will accelerate.”

That article also dug into the broader societal aspects of the issue. It quoted Yuji Ozaki, a security officer at Zenkoku Security Guard in Tokyo, as saying that pensioners—like troubled youth—are sometimes acting out in order to get attention, or because they feel isolated, adding: “In the old days, someone used to talk to them when they shopped downtown. But now they only have big stores nearby, and nobody talks to them. I think they get kind of frustrated and do it [commit crimes] when they lose interaction with the neighborhood.”

An older Kyodo piece reported on how Japanese senior citizens might see petty crime as a solution to their financial and social ills. Ryukoku University criminology professor Koichi Hamai explained: “In prison, criminals can find companionship, food and good care, when outside, they may lack family or financial support.”

Some onlookers may chuckle at the notion of elders swiping items from shop shelves. But others worry that the issue has already reached far graver proportions. Earlier this month a 71-year-old man set himself ablaze on a Shinkansen high-speed rail car bound from Tokyo to Osaka. His suicidal arson lead not only to his death but also that of 52-year-old female fellow passenger, not mention twenty-six other passengers who endured minor burns and smoke inhalation injuries. And what was the man’s reason for setting that fire? His meager pension, according to a neighbor who had heard him complain about his financial constraints.

—Kyle Mullin