In a serene temple in the countryside near Tokyo, the sound of a priest’s mobile phone breaks the silence.
On the other end of the line: a woman in her 70s who says she was swindled out of tens of millions of yen (tens of thousands of dollars), becoming the latest elderly victim of fraud in ageing Japan.
“The bad guy is always the scammer, not you,” Eiichi Shinohara tells the woman. “You’re a kind person. Never blame yourself.”
The 78-year-old grew up surrounded by monks, studied Buddhism at university and travelled abroad to Cambodia to work in a refugee camp before finally returning home to lead the temple in Narita, in Japan’s Chiba region.
Now, he coordinates a network of about 50 fellow Buddhist monks who offer counselling to those who have fallen into deep despair, including after being scammed.
Few realize “how devastating a toll fraud takes on its victims and that it can even drive them into suicide,” Shinohara said. “I would say it’s tantamount to murder,” he said.
In a nation with the world’s second-oldest population, Japanese scammers find plenty of lucrative prey.
Last year, organized fraudsters did more than 37 billion yen (US$250 million) in damage, up 30 percent from 2021 and the first increase in years.
Elderly people account for nearly 90 percent of victims, according to the National Police Agency.
Multiple factors are believed to be at play, including the advent of yami baito — black-market part-time jobs — advertised on social media by criminal gangs.
‘THANK YOU GRANDMA’
Part of the silver-haired generation’s vulnerability to scams stems from its lack of familiarity with new technology.
But Shinohara, who says he has fielded thousands of calls from distraught victims over the years, believes isolation is also at play.
A growing number of older people in Japan live by themselves, and dying alone and unnoticed has become common enough that there is a Japanese term for it: kodokushi.
So when scammers call, sometimes pretending to be relatives in dire need of money, elderly people are often receptive.
These calls seem to promise old people “a great chance to break out of isolation”, Shinohara says.
“They dream of being told, ‘thank you grandma, you’re my lifesaver,’” he said. “Just when they feel they’ve been all but abandoned by the rest of their family, they come upon this chance to be useful again and win back respect — that’s the desire those scammers exploit.”
But once they have been defrauded, older people often wind up feeling even more isolated. Family members, upset at the financial loss, sometimes turn against them, the priest said.
Akiko Ando was swindled out of nearly 30 million yen (around US$200,000 today) in 2014, when she was in her late 70s. Afterwards, her family froze her out, furious that she had been so gullible.
Ando fell for a phone call informing her that she won a lottery jackpot worth hundreds of millions of yen. The scammer told her she needed to pay hefty advance “fees” to receive the bonanza, sending her scraping together funds from friends.
Once she finally realized it was a scam, her son and siblings cut off contact.
Up until her death from an illness this year, she was racked by regret.
“I caused trouble to my family and disgusted them,” she wrote in a diary that was entrusted to Shinohara. “I was too greedy... I’m no longer seen as a parent but a sinner,” she wrote.
“But I deserve it, and I’ll have to endure the punishment until I die.”
It was exactly the kind of self-loathing that Shinohara is determined to save elderly fraud victims from feeling.
“Come visit us anytime,” he says to the distraught woman on the phone, breaking the tranquility of a September afternoon in Narita. “We can talk about it all day. A meal is waiting for you.”
On those rare days in Kaohsiung when the air is crisp and clear, the eastern horizon is dominated by a green wall that towers high above the Pingtung plains. This is the ridge running from Wutou Mountain (霧頭山), up to Beidawu Mountain (北大武山) at 3,092 meters. Many make the trek up to Beidawu, but very few walk the top of this wall over to Wutou, and for good reason: it is an unmarked, overgrown death trap with no reliable water and steep slopes full of rotten wood and crumbly rock. Last week, news emerged that a French couple called for rescue
One stormy night in May, Kim loaded his family into his home-made wooden boat and sailed away from North Korea, hoping to give his children a life of freedom. Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the peninsula was divided by war in the 1950s, but most go overland to neighboring China first. Defecting by sea is extremely rare and seen as far more dangerous than land routes, with only a handful of people making it across the de facto maritime border, the Northern Limit line. But Kim, a 31-year-old fisherman who asked that AFP use only his
Hitting tennis balls across a tree-lined court in Thailand’s mountainous north, Connie Chen’s weekly private training session is a luxury the Chinese national could barely afford when she lived in Shanghai. China implemented some of the world’s toughest COVID restrictions during the pandemic, putting hundreds of millions of people under prolonged lockdowns. In the aftermath, younger citizens — exhausted by grueling and unrewarding jobs — are taking flight to escape abroad. With a relatively easy process for one-year study visas, a slower pace of living and cheap living costs, Thailand’s second-largest city Chiang Mai has become a popular destination. “During the pandemic, the
Comedian Xi Diao says he knows he should avoid talking politics on stage, but sharing a family name with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) makes it hard to resist. Even his name is politically sensitive, the Melbourne-based amateur comedian tells audiences, setting up a joke about a group chat on the Chinese messaging service WeChat being shut down as soon as he joined it. The 33-year-old civil engineer gets nervous laughs whenever he breaks a de facto rule of Chinese comedy: Don’t say anything that makes China look bad. To most comedians, that means no jokes about censorship, no mentioning the president’s