Category Archives: In World


Valentine’s Day: India college row over ‘virgin tree’ worship”:

Some women students say the celebration is anti-women

A Valentine’s Day celebration at a prestigious college in the Indian capital, Delhi, where students worship a “virgin tree” every year has run into trouble with some female students who say it’s “patriarchal” and “misogynistic” and must be shelved.

For decades now, male students of the Hindu College have been hosting a puja (ritualistic worship) at the tree, and balloons, colourful ribbons and condoms filled with water would be hung from its branches.

Posters of the latest avatar of the goddess Damdami Mai – generally a top Bollywood actress or a model chosen by the students – would be unveiled in the morning and pinned to the tree.

A male student dressed as a Hindu priest would perform religious rituals, hundreds of students would sing a hymn in praise of the “generally curvaceous goddess”, prasad (food offering made to her) would be distributed among the students who would dance and celebrate.

Over the years, a legend has grown that worshipping at the tree would help a student lose his virginity within six months.

In a largely conservative country like India where pre-marital sex is still taboo, many young adults believe nothing less than divine intervention will help them hook up.


Posters of Bollywood actors Jacqueline Fernandez and Ranveer Singh were put up at last year’s event

Teli Venkatesh, the 19-year-old president of the boys’ hostel union which is organising the event, told the BBC that the virgin tree pujawas an old tradition at the college and that hundreds of students, including women, participated in it every year.

Describing it as “some harmless fun”, he said it had started “because people wanted to celebrate love”.

Some female students, however, say the event “sexualises and objectifies” women and has no place in a “secular, intellectual” space like their college.

“The male students pick an actress who is attractive enough to be labelled Damdami Mai and the puja reeks of Brahminical ritual practices of caste pride,” Aashi Datta, a 20-year-old undergrad student at the college, told the BBC.

Ms Datta – a member of the Pinjra Tod (or Break the Cage) movement that’s campaigning for equal rights for women on college campuses and also part of the Women Development Cell of the Hindu College – says the event is held in a “hyper masculine, aggressive environment” and that in past years, women’s participation was “not even 5%”.


On Thursday morning, she will be near the tree along with “some 20 other students, including a few men” to hold a protest, demanding a “complete stop” to this “offensive” puja .

Mr Venkatesh accuses Ms Datta of trying to “politicise” a college event and says that students who “enthusiastically participate” in the celebrations come from different states and belong to different religions and castes.

He also lists the changes they have incorporated this time to make the event more inclusive.

“Since this is about celebrating love, we are selecting a couple who are in a long-lasting relationship. To address the criticism that we are not just about heterosexual love, we are putting up pride flags and placards to celebrate the LGBT community. And we are hanging condoms to promote safe sex, bring awareness about sexually transmitted diseases and end taboos about sex.”

He also said that they would use a fully clothed photograph of the actress chosen as this year’s goddess and that the hymn lyrics had been rewritten to make it less descriptive of the female body.

Ms Datta and the other protesters, however, say nothing short of completely stopping this event will do.

“Legacy and tradition are not good enough reasons to continue with a festival. It’s a liberal college, we need to choose which traditions to follow and which ones to drop,” she insists.

On Tuesday, the two warring sides met, along with some professors, to find a way out, but the stalemate remains.


A meeting held on Tuesday to sort out the differences over the controversial event ended in a stalemate

Prof PK Vijayan, who was invited by the female students to speak at the meeting, was a student at Hindu in the late 1980s when the virgin tree puja began.

“It started with courting couples sitting around the tree and so it came to be known as the lovers’ tree,” he says. “In those days, there was little awareness about Valentine’s Day in India. But over the years, the celebrations became more structured and the tree was festooned with condoms and posters of women regarded as beautiful.

“And then students began believing that eating the prasad would help them lose their virginity and the boys lined up for it and so did some girls.”

Prof Vijayan agrees that women’s participation in the festival is very low and says he’s heard some women say that they are uncomfortable with the way it is conducted.

But he says he’s not comfortable with “any type of puritanical ideas” and suggests that they continue with the puja but modify it.

“I think the female students should be more flexible and instead of demanding a ban, they should take it over and redesign it the way they want to.

“Unfortunately, at the moment it is done as a celebration of machismo. It should be made more inclusive so that women could participate as those who also desire, and not just as the desired.”

John Henry Newman: Second miracle approved as sainthood looms”:

John Henry Newman, who was born in 1801, was ordained as a priest in 1847 after converting to Catholicism

Cardinal John Henry Newman is closer to being canonised after a second miracle in his name was confirmed by the Pope.

Two authenticated miracles are required before sainthood and Newman, who was already attributed with curing a man’s spinal disease, is now said to have healed a woman’s unstoppable bleeding.

The Birmingham Oratory announced Pope Francis’ decree with “great joy”.

Newman, born in the city in 1801, would become the first English saint to have lived since the Reformation.

Beatification of John Henry Newman in Birmingham in 2010
Pope Benedict beatified John Henry Newman in Birmingham in 2010

The first miracle the Catholic convert is said by the Vatican to have performed was curing a deacon from Boston, Massachusetts, of a crippling spinal disease.

Pope Francis has since decreed a second miracle, with Newman said to have healed a pregnant woman “suffering from unstoppable internal bleeding”.

Newman was beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict  before tens of thousands of people in his home city of Birmingham after the first miracle was recognised.

Portrait of John Henry Newman
Newman founded the Birmingham Oratory in Edgbaston which is still in use today

During his life, Newman was a respected religious scholar, who spent much of his time helping the poor and sick.

The last English canonisations were in 1970 of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, a group of Catholics who were executed between 1535 and 1679 under laws enacted during the English Reformation.

Presentational grey line

Four steps to sainthood:

The process cannot begin until at least five years after the candidate’s death and involves scrutinising evidence of his or her holiness and work.

  • First, the individual is declared a “servant of God”
  • He or she is then called “venerable”
  • Beatification: an individual is declared blessed after a miracle is attributed to him or her
  • Canonisation: The candidate becomes a saint after a further Vatican-authenticated miracle
Presentational grey line

The UK’s leading Catholic, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said Newman was “deeply admired”, particularly by the people of Birmingham who “lined the streets” when he died.

The former Archbishop of Birmingham added that the announcement of Newman’s pending canonisation was “wonderful news”.

Birmingham Oratory, the community founded by Newman in 1849, said the confirmation of his “heroic sanctity will be welcomed by Catholics and Anglicans alike”.

The battle over Britain’s newest student movement

To say that the launch of Britain’s newest right-wing student organisation suffered a few snags is a bit like reporting that Brexit negotiations have not all been plain sailing.

Turning Point UK (TPUK) is an offshoot of Turning Point USA, a controversial and staunchly pro-Trump presence on American campuses.

The group announced its arrival last week, proclaiming itself a cheerleader for capitalism, free speech and limited government. It was enthusiastically received by leading Brexiteers including Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

But Twitter was not entirely welcoming, and TPUK almost immediately found itself hit by a tsunami of online mockery. Dozens of parody accounts quickly appeared.

The accounts posted caricatures of leading TPUK members such as Darren Grimes, a pro-Brexit campaigner fined £20,000 for breaking EU referendum spending laws

Much of the humour revolves around portraying TPUK as privileged, or extremists.

There are also multiple memes depicting Turning Point USA’s founder Charlie Kirk in nappies – a reference to a backfiring publicity stunt in which American activists dressed as babies to ridicule the idea of campus “safe spaces”.

Mock image of Charlie Kirk in diapers from Twitter

Many of the parody accounts are visually almost indistinguishable from actual TPUK accounts. To add to the confusion, both the parody and genuine accounts furiously denounced each other on Twitter. In Cambridge, each accused the other of being socialist saboteurs who should be removed from the platform. Victory was eventually claimed by the genuine account when the parody one was handed a Twitter ban.

Tweets by rival TPUK Cambridge accounts denouncing the other as fake.

At first, the main national TPUK account appeared mildly irritated and promised to help supporters navigate their way through the fakes.

But as the parody army continued to grow, TPUK staged a tactical retreat. The national account now says that it is the only real one, even though some apparently genuine branch accounts remain.

Happy with launch

Despite all the confusion, TPUK chairman George Farmer says that he is broadly happy with how the launch has gone.

“You can never stop people creating fake accounts. It’s one of the joys of the internet,” he told BBC Trending. “People are always going to create hundreds of fake accounts in the same way that they do for Trump.”

Farmer says that TPUK is seeking Twitter verification – which comes with that coveted blue tick – to help make clear which are the organisation’s real accounts. The main account, @TPointUK, has already attracted more than 19,000 followers.

But there’s another problem – there’s already a well-established Turning Point in Britain. It’s not political at all, rather it’s an organisation that supports people with drug and alcohol problems.

The original Turning Point told Trending it received no advance warning of the creation of a similarly-named group.

“Turning Point would like to make it clear that we have no connection to TPointUK or any political movements,” the charity said in a statement. “Many people are concerned about the confusion.”

But Farmer says his group has done nothing wrong: “We don’t have the same name. We don’t have the same logo. It’s completely different.”

Parody network

So who is behind the online onslaught against Turning Point UK?

Many of the parody accounts have posted a link to a satirical version of the TPUK website created by a student blogger who goes by the alias “Skeptical Seventh”.

The website makes a mock plea for an end to the online harassment of TPUK: “Our organisation has been labelled ‘a glorified incel support group.’ This is just plain misleading, some of us like UKIP”.

Skeptical Seventh, who declined to give his real name, says that the parody accounts were a spontaneous reaction by individuals concerned about what they regard as the import of a “sinister” right-wing movement whose US operation is funded by big Republican Party donors .

“A lot of the people who are involved with the parody accounts are broadly left-leaning,” says Skeptical Seventh. “It’s really unified all corners of the left and even some of the centre and maybe even centre-right,” he says.

“There was a Twitter group chat with all the different fake accounts and 50 is the limit on the number of people you can have in group chat, and they couldn’t get everybody in,” Skeptical Seventh says.

‘Professor Watchlist’

The people behind the parody accounts have also set up at least two fundraising pages to seek donations for the charity Turning Point’s drink and drug services.

Skeptical Seventh rejects the accusation of TPUK supporters that the parodies are puerile and evidence of the intellectual poverty of the left.

“I think for an organisation that once had a chapter dressing up as as toddlers in nappies, it’s a bit rich of them to try to call the people opposing them immature,” he says.

The group’s critics have also taken issue with Turning Point USA’s “Professor Watchlist” – an online registry of professors that the group accuses of advancing “a radical agenda”.

“They must know that what they are doing will lead to people being harassed, being shut down,” says Skeptical Seventh. “It is undermining academic freedom, which is ironic for an organisation that claims to be in favour of free speech.”

The British organisation won’t be setting up a similar list, one of the group’s “influencers”, Dominique Samuels, told BBC Radio 5 Live.

TPUK says it wants to challenge the notion that students will naturally gravitate towards left-wing politics.

“Why is it that all young people feel obliged to vote for Labour?” Farmer asks. “Just talk some of my friends, if you tell them you’re a conservative, it’s like you’re banished. That’s not freedom of thought. That’s thought control.”

Samuels says she has suffered online abuse for publically identifying herself as a young black woman who is a conservative.

Funding questions

The American group has been organised as a type of non-profit organisation which is not required to disclose its sources of funding. That lack of transparency has given additional fuel for its critics. Questions have also been asked about TPUK’s accounts.

George Farmer is a former Tory party donor and son of Lord Farmer, a multi-millionaire and former Conservative Party treasurer. The foundation of TPUK was announced with an event at the Royal Automobile Club, hosted by another multi-millionaire, John Mappin.

Farmer says TPUK won’t identify its donors because to do so would make them targets for abuse. He rejects assertions that TPUK is sponsored by the privileged elite rather than a “grassroots” organisation.

“I would love it if these privileged people gave us some money because we don’t have much money coming in,” he says. “We are raising money from UK-based donors. We are trying to do things the right way.”

The Trump factor

Although Turning Point USA cannot officially work on behalf of candidates – and has faced allegations that it has broken election campaign laws – its founder Charlie Kirk is an outspoken supporter of President Trump and a close friend of Donald Trump Jr.

Farmer is engaged to Candace Owens, the US organisation’s communications director, who has been heavily involved – not always happily – with Kanye West’s unusual interactions with the president.

Farmer also says he’s an admirer of Trump, who he sees as a bombastic but effective disruptor.

“Anecdotally, loads of conversations I’ve had with people are like: I don’t like his style but I like his policies,” he says. “You don’t have to like him as a person… He’s elected to get the job done.”

Though TPUK has won endorsement from several leading Tories, there are indications that some in the party are not so keen. The right-wing website Breitbart website reported that university Conservative associations had been advised not to get involved with the new movement. A Conservative Party spokesman would not comment beyond saying that TPUK was not affiliated to the party.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the online battles, TPUK is bracing itself for further turbulence when it ventures beyond the internet next month to stage “campus clash” events in London, Nottingham and Brighton. Farmer says TPUK personalities including Kirk and Owen will engage in debates about issues such as free speech. Farmer acknowledges that there are “security concerns” that they are working to address.

“I imagine, if I’m honest, a whole bunch of antifa [anti-fascist] leftists will turn up at the event and try to mob us and prevent us going in,” he says. “A bunch of interested students who are genuinely interested and want to be provoked – in terms of thought – will come and will listen and will probably take away some interesting conclusions.”

A Spotify end of year chart which claims you spent 6 hours with your favourite artist Bergenulo Five

Mysterious musicians have cropped up on Spotify, racking up thousands of listens and (perhaps) hundreds of pounds. It’s a phenomenon that experts say could indicate a security flaw.

Chelmsford bus gate signs ‘confusing drivers’ brains’

A psychologist fined for driving through a bus gate has won her appeal after arguing there were too many signs for the brain to process.

Bernadine King’s penalty charge notice (PCN) was quashed after a tribunal ruled signage was “inadequate”.

Essex County Council has taken £1.5m after 54,000 drivers were fined using the Chelmsford bus gate in 18 months.

It said the PCNs had seen the number of people using the gate “reduce to less than a quarter” of the figure before.

Psychologist Bernadine King said there were too many signs for drivers to take in by the bus gate
Psychologist Bernadine King said there were too many signs for drivers to take in by the bus gate

Dr King – who has published several academic papers on how people process visual information – said the bus gate, a short section of road blocked off to all traffic except buses, cycles and taxis, was “endangering lives”

“Once you’re committed to turn left on Duke Street, you have no way of safely turning around,” she said.

“Drivers are being trapped in the area and they’re panicking.

“There are so many signs by the bus gate but a little contradiction in the brain means we cannot absorb all the information.

“To consciously process all the information, it may take a few seconds and by that point, you’ve already travelled 20ft or 30ft down the road.”

Height restriction sign, Chelmsford bus gate
The location of height restriction signage in the city implies the bus gate comes after the railway bridge – but it does not

After visiting the site, the traffic penalty adjudicator said that although some of the signs by the bus gate were large and easily visible, they were “cluttered” together and meant “drivers could be confused”.

Dr King, who received her PCN in November, is now calling on the council to carry out a safety review of the bus gate, which she called “a blight on Chelmsford”.

An Essex County Council spokesman said: “Before turning on enforcement cameras in 2017, we increased signage at all junctions, sent more than 3,000 warning notices and painted the words “BUS GATE” in five-foot high letters on the road at both entrances to help make drivers aware of the restrictions.”

He added that all money generated by fines was “reinvested to help improve public transport, roads and the transport network across Essex”

hellhole’: Cambridge University student Peter Biar Ajak ‘detained

A Cambridge University student facing the death penalty in South Sudan is being “arbitrarily detained in a modern-day hellhole”, his lawyer says.

PhD student Peter Biar Ajak, 35, a critic of his country’s regime, has been detained without charge since his arrest at Juba Airport in July.

His lawyer Jared Genser said this was “in clear violation of his rights under international law”.

The government of South Sudan could not be reached for comment.

Shortly before his arrest, Mr Ajak had tweeted about South Sudan’s “so-called leaders”.

Human rights group Amnesty International is campaigning on his behalf and his plight was highlighted this week in the United States Congress.

Mr Genser said his client was one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys”, displaced by the country’s civil war.

He resettled in the United States, studying at La Salle University in Philadelphia and Harvard University, before moving to Cambridge University.

Returning to his home country on 28 July to hold a youth forum, he was arrested and taken directly to custody.

Peter Biar Ajak
Mr Ajak is the father to two young children

Mr Genser said his client had called for the country’s current leaders to step down so that younger people could take over and achieve peace.

“This has become a real problem for the government in South Sudan, which then decides to target him for arrest and arbitrary detention because he was being a very effective critic,” he said.

On Thursday, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, who “knew Peter as a brilliant student and leader” while teaching at La Salle University, drew attention to his detention in the US House of Representatives.

Mr Genser said charges being considered by the South Sudanese authorities included treason and terrorism, both of which carry the death penalty.

“Somebody like him needs to be on the front lines fighting for freedom, democracy and human rights – not arbitrarily detained in a modern-day hellhole in clear violation of his rights under international law and for crimes he did not commit,” said Mr Genser.

Presentational grey line

South Sudan fact file

  • The East African nation is world’s youngest, having gained independence in 2011, but has been troubled by internal conflict for much of its existence
  • A 2017-18 Amnesty International report found approximately one third of the population had been displaced by the conflict
  • By the end of 2017, UNICEF estimated that more than 19,000 child soldiers had been used in the country’s civil war
  • More than half the country’s populationfaces severe hunger and food insecurity
Presentational grey line

A Cambridge University spokeswoman said: “The university remains deeply concerned about Peter’s welfare and his access to legal representation and the violation of his rights in accordance with the constitution of South Sudan, which guarantees all South Sudanese people liberty and security of person, due process, and freedom of expression and association.”

Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East Africa, said Mr Ajak’s ongoing detention without charge was “absurd” and in breach of South Sudan’s own constitution and international law.

“South Sudanese authorities must either release him so he can re-join his wife and children who miss him dearly, or charge him with an offence recognised under international law,” he said

Liam Neeson in racism storm after admitting he wanted to kill a black man

Actor Liam Neeson is facing a major racism storm after admitting he once set out to kill an innocent black man.

He said he walked the streets with a weapon for a week years ago, hoping to take out his anger after someone close to him was raped by a black man.

The Hollywood star said he was ashamed of his actions, but his remarks have sparked widespread outrage.

Neeson hasn’t commented further since the interview was published by The Independent on Monday.

He was speaking to promote his new film Cold Pursuit, a thriller about a man who seeks retribution after his son is murdered.

Asked how his character turns to anger, the actor replied that “something primal” kicks in when a someone close to you is the victim of violence.

Listen to Liam Neeson's comments that sparked the outrage
Listen to Liam Neeson’s comments that sparked the outrage

He said: “God forbid you’ve ever had a member of your family hurt under criminal conditions. I’ll tell you a story. This is true.”

Neeson said the alleged rape took place a long time ago and he found out about it when he came back from a trip abroad. The actor went on to use racially offensive language about the attacker.

He said: “She handled the situation of the rape in the most extraordinary way.

“But my immediate reaction was… I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person.

“I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [uses air quotes with fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him.”

Neeson has been subject to huge criticism for the comments.

Clemence Michallon, who interviewed Liam Neeson, says she was struck by the "gravity" of his thoughts
Clemence Michallon, who interviewed Liam Neeson, says she was struck by the “gravity” of his thoughts

The journalist who did the interview, Clémence Michallon, told BBC News: “Anyone hearing the thoughts that he’s reporting here would be shocked and appalled in many ways, and he himself says he is ashamed to think of the way he used to think and says it’s awful, so of course that shock set in really quickly.”

In an accompanying article in The Independent , columnist Kuba Shand-Baptiste wrote: “What immediately struck me when reading about his revelation was how deeply the white supremacist trope of the ‘black brute’ versus the ‘helpless woman’ appears to have permeated society.”

Liam Neeson and Tom Bateman
Neeson alongside Tom Bateman in Cold Pursuit

Los Angeles Times columnist Carla Hall wrotethat his conduct was “despicable”, adding that she now wants him to talk about whether he has dealt with “whatever racism he still harbours”.

She wrote: “Was he a racist or just a tightly wound man capable of vindictive violence? Or was he both? Of course, he was a racist. He was roaming the streets trying to find a random black man to kill.

“And he gave every indication of being capable of violence. That’s a pretty explosive combination. And his revelation about himself is deeply disturbing. The question is, how much has he changed since then?”

On Twitter, Frederick Joseph, who works for better representation in the media, wrote that Neeson’s story “just shows how meaningless and inconsequential black lives are to some”.

Neeson referred back to his comments later in the interview, adding: “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that. And I’ve never admitted that, and I’m saying it to a journalist. God forbid.

“It’s awful. But I did learn a lesson from it.”

Some said Neeson should not be castigated for admitting such thoughts but realising they were wrong and saying he had learned from them.

However, others pointed out that he didn’t specifically acknowledge any underlying racial motivations.

The 66-year-old, who is best known for Schindler’s List and the thriller series Taken, also described growing up around violence in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, during the Troubles.

“I knew a couple of guys that died on hunger strike, and I had acquaintances who were very caught up in the Troubles, and I understand that need for revenge, but it just leads to more revenge, to more killing and more killing, and Northern Ireland’s proof of that.

“All this stuff that’s happening in the world, the violence, is proof of that, you know. But that primal need, I understand.”

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Clive Swift: Keeping Up Appearances star dies at 82

Clive Swift with Patricia Routledge in Keeping Up Appearances
Swift spent six years playing Richard to Patricia Routledge’s Hyacinth

Actor Clive Swift, known to millions as Hyacinth Bucket’s hen-pecked husband Richard in BBC One’s 90s sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, has died aged 82.

Swift, who spent 10 years at the RSC before breaking into television, also acted in such series as Peak Practice, Born and Bred and The Old Guys.

He spent six years playing Richard opposite Dame Patricia Routledge.

The role saw him patiently tolerate her ham-fisted and invariably thwarted attempts at social climbing.

Off-screen he co-founded The Actors Centre, a meeting place for members of his profession in central London.

Clive Swift with Roger Lloyd Pack in The Old Guys
He went on to appear with Roger Lloyd Pack in The Old Guys

Born in Liverpool in 1936, he had three children with his ex-wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble.

Swift’s many roles included a part in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy and as King Arthur’s adopted father in 1981 film Excalibur.

Many years later, he would play Hitchcock in a BBC radio play called Strangers on a Film.

Swift made a number of appearances in Doctor Who, most recently in the 2007 episode Voyage of the Damned.

According to his agent, the actor died at his home on Friday after a short illness, surrounded by his family.

Gwyneth Paltrow sued over skiing accident


Gwyneth Paltrow is being sued over a skiing accident that happened in a Utah ski resort in 2016.

The actress is accused of knocking down 72-year-old Terry Sanderson leaving him with a brain injury, short term memory loss and four broken ribs.

Sanderson’s lawyers say he has also experienced a personality change.

The Goop founder has denied the allegations. Her publicist Heather Wilson said the “lawsuit is without merit and we expect to be vindicated.”

The case seeks $3.1m [£2.36m] in damages. It claims she was skiing “out of control” when she hit the retired optometrist on a beginner’s slope on 26 February 2016.

In a press conference he said he remembers being thrown forward after hearing a woman scream but suffers memory issues over exactly what happened because he said he was knocked unconscious.

Craig Ramon, who was skiing with Mr Sanderson, said he witnessed Paltrow hitting him in the back, knocking him over and falling on top of him.

Mr Sanderson said it was “unkind” of Paltrow to immediately ski off and not check he was ok.

Continue reading Gwyneth Paltrow sued over skiing accident

Toshio displays his own drawings in his cell

Why some Japanese pensioners want to go to jail

Why some Japanese pensioners want to go to jail

Japan is in the grip of an elderly crime wave – the proportion of crimes committed by people over the age of 65 has been steadily increasing for 20 years. The BBC’s Ed Butler asks why.

At a halfway house in Hiroshima – for criminals who are being released from jail back into the community – 69-year-old Toshio Takata tells me he broke the law because he was poor. He wanted somewhere to live free of charge, even if it was behind bars.

“I reached pension age and then I ran out of money. So it occurred to me – perhaps I could live for free if I lived in jail,” he says.

“So I took a bicycle and rode it to the police station and told the guy there: ‘Look, I took this.'”

The plan worked. This was Toshio’s first offence, committed when he was 62, but Japanese courts treat petty theft seriously, so it was enough to get him a one-year sentence.

Small, slender, and with a tendency to giggle, Toshio looks nothing like a habitual criminal, much less someone who’d threaten women with knives. But after he was released from his first sentence, that’s exactly what he did.

“I went to a park and just threatened them. I wasn’t intending to do any harm. I just showed the knife to them hoping one of them would call the police. One did.”

Toshio Takata
Toshio displays his own drawings in his cell

Altogether, Toshio has spent half of the last eight years in jail.

I ask him if he likes being in prison, and he points out an additional financial upside – his pension continues to be paid even while he’s inside.

“It’s not that I like it but I can stay there for free,” he says. “And when I get out I have saved some money. So it is not that painful.”

Toshio represents a striking trend in Japanese crime. In a remarkably law-abiding society, a rapidly growing proportion of crimes is carried about by over-65s. In 1997 this age group accounted for about one in 20 convictions but 20 years later the figure had grown to more than one in five – a rate that far outstrips the growth of the over-65s as a proportion of the population (though they now make up more than a quarter of the total).

And like Toshio, many of these elderly lawbreakers are repeat offenders. Of the 2,500 over-65s convicted in 2016, more than a third had more than five previous convictions .

Another example is Keiko (not her real name). Seventy years old, small, and neatly presented, she also tells me that it was poverty that was her undoing.

“I couldn’t get along with my husband. I had nowhere to live and no place to stay. So it became my only choice: to steal,” she says. “Even women in their 80s who can’t properly walk are committing crime. It’s because they can’t find food, money.”

We spoke some months ago in an ex-offender’s hostel. I’ve been told she’s since been re-arrested, and is now serving another jail-term for shoplifting.


Find out more

Japan’s Elderly Crime Wave can be heard on Assignment on the BBC World Service from Thursday 31 January –  click here for transmission times

Theft, principally shoplifting , is overwhelmingly the biggest crime committed by elderly offenders. They mostly steal food worth less than 3,000 yen (£20) from a shop they visit regularly.

Michael Newman, an Australian-born demographer with the Tokyo-based research house, Custom Products Research Group points out that the “measly” basic state pension in Japan is very hard to live on.

In a paper published in 2016 he calculates thatthe costs of rent, food and healthcare alone will leave recipients in debt if they have no other income – and that’s before they’ve paid for heating or clothes. In the past it was traditional for children to look after their parents, but in the provinces a lack of economic opportunities has led many younger people to move away, leaving their parents to fend for themselves.

Prison guard

“The pensioners don’t want to be a burden to their children, and feel that if they can’t survive on the state pension then pretty much the only way not to be a burden is to shuffle themselves away into prison,” he says.

The repeat offending is a way “to get back into prison” where there are three square meals a day and no bills, he says.

“It’s almost as though you’re rolled out, so you roll yourself back in.”

Newman points out that suicide is also becoming more common among the elderly – another way for them to fulfil what he they may regard as “their duty to bow out”.

Quote: People have become isolated - they cannot put up with their loneliness

The director of “With Hiroshima”, the rehabilitation centre where I met Toshio Takata, also thinks changes in Japanese families have contributed to the elderly crime wave, but he emphasises the psychological consequences not the financial ones.

“Ultimately the relationship among people has changed. People have become more isolated. They don’t find a place to be in this society. They cannot put up with their loneliness,” says Kanichi Yamada, an 85-year-old who as a child was pulled out of the rubble of his home when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Kanichi Yamada
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“Among the elderly who commit crimes a number have this turning point in their middle life. There is some trigger. They lose a wife or children and they just can’t cope with that… Usually people don’t commit crime if they have people to look after them and provide them with support.”

Toshio’s story about being driven to crime as a result of poverty is just an “excuse”, Kanichi Yamada suggests. The core of the problem is his loneliness. And one factor that may have prompted him to reoffend, he speculates, was the promise of company in jail.

It’s true that Toshio is alone in the world. His parents are dead, and he has lost contact with two older brothers, who don’t answer his calls. He has also lost contact with his two ex-wives, both of whom he divorced, and his three children.

Toshio Takata
Toshio is a keen painter

I ask him if he thinks things would have turned out differently if he’d had a wife and family. He says they would.

“If they had been around to support me I wouldn’t have done this,” he says.

Michael Newman has watched as the Japanese government has expanded prison capacity, and recruited additional female prison guards (the number of elderly women criminals is rising particularly fast, though from a low base). He’s also noted the steeply rising bill for medical treatment of people in prison.

There have been other changes too, as I see for myself at a prison in Fuchu, outside Tokyo, where nearly a third of the inmates are now over 60.

There’s a lot of marching inside Japanese prisons – marching and shouting. But here the military drill seems to be getting harder to enforce. I see a couple of grey-haired inmates at the back of one platoon struggling to keep up. One is on crutches.

“We have had to improve the facilities here,” Masatsugu Yazawa, the prison’s head of education tells me. “We’ve put in handrails, special toilets. There are classes for older offenders.”

Prisoners attend a class

He takes me to watch one of them. It begins with a karaoke rendition of a popular song, The Reason I was Born, all about the meaning of life. The inmates are encouraged to sing along. Some look quite moved.

“We sing to show them that the real life is outside prison, and that happiness is there,” Yazawa says. “But still they think the life in prison is better and many come back.”

Michael Newman argues that it would be far better – and much cheaper – to look after the elderly without the expense of court proceedings and incarceration.

“We actually costed a model to build an industrial complex retirement village where people would forfeit half their pension but get free food, free board and healthcare and so on, and get to play karaoke or gate-ball with the other residents and have a relative amount of freedom. It would cost way less than what the government’s spending at the moment,” he says.

Quote: I don't want to do this again - I'll soon be 70 and I'll be old and frail

But he also suggests that the tendency for Japanese courts to hand down custodial sentences for petty theft “is slightly bizarre, in terms of the punishment actually fitting the crime”.

“The theft of a 200-yen (£1.40) sandwich could lead to an 8.4m-yen (£580,000) tax bill to provide for a two-year sentence,” he writes in his 2016 report.

That may be a hypothetical example, but I met one elderly jailbird whose experience was almost identical. He’d been given a two-year jail term for only his second offence: stealing a bottle of peppers worth £2.50.

And I heard from Morio Mochizuki, who provides security for some 3,000 retail outlets in Japan, that if anything the courts are getting tougher on shoplifters.

“Even if they only stole one piece of bread,” says Masayuki Sho of Japan’s Prison Service, “it was decided at trial that it is appropriate for them to go to prison, therefore we need to teach them the way: how to live in society without committing crime.”

I don’t know whether the prison service has taught Toshio Takata this lesson, but when I ask him if he is already planning his next crime, he denies it.

“No, actually this is it,” he says.

“I don’t want to do this again, and I will soon be 70 and I will be old and frail the next time. I won’t do that again.”

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