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TOKYO (Reuters) - Crime by elderly Japanese has doubled over the past five years and is likely to keep increasing, posing a serious challenge to one of the world's most rapidly aging societies, a government report said on Friday.
Factors ranging from lower income and loneliness to an unstable living environment have helped push up crime by those aged 65 or over, and the number of such crimes is growing faster than the elderly population itself, the report added.
"The issue of elderly offenders poses a big problem that our society must be burdened with," the annual report on crime by the justice ministry said.
"As the generation of baby boomers becomes elderly within five years, we are at a stage where we must have a fundamental review on how to prevent crime in a clearly aging society."
Over one-fifth of Japan's population of 128 million is now aged 65 and over, and the figure is expected to double by midcentury.
In 2007, the number of elderly caught committing crimes other than traffic violations totaled 48,605, twice that of five years earlier. Thefts such as shoplifting were the most common offenses.
Examples cited by the report included a 76-year-old woman who started shoplifting several years ago partly due to loneliness after her parents died. A 76-year-old man caught shoplifting after his release from prison on parole hoped to return to prison to have a place to sleep and eat.
The report said preventing repeat offenses was vital and called for strong cooperation among probation officers, prisons and welfare organizations.
"Some may use welfare support for gambling, so giving money is not always a solution. So if the person can still work, the best thing to do may be to give them work and have them feel that they can still contribute to society," said Toru Suzuki, the justice ministry researcher who compiled the report.
"But nowadays, even young people find it hard to find jobs, so it is difficult to find them for the elderly," he said, adding that the government would need to consider various support programs but there was no panacea to offer right away.
Reporting by Yoko Nishikawa; Editing by Chris Gallagher