Lesson Plans

Elderly Women in Japan's Prisons: Composing Portraits Reflecting Interviews

Almost 1 in 5 women in Japanese prisons is a senior. In the vast majoriy of those cases, the women were found guilty of shoplifting. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2017.


Students will be able to evaluate how a photojournalist composes portraits of elderly women in Japanese prisons using details from interviews in order to create their own portraits reflecting the stories of elderly women in their communities.


1. What is the punishment for stealing in your community?

2. Why do people steal? What might motivate a person to steal from a grocery store, a clothing store, or a pharmacy?

3. Examine the portrait and caption below, which shows a woman who is serving two years in prison in Japan for stealing. Use evidence from the image to respond to the following:

  • What do you learn about the woman from the image?
  • What do you learn about her from the caption?
  • Why do you the think the photographer chose to take and publish this image of the woman? What story is she trying to tell, and how is she trying to tell it?

Explore the reporting:

The image above was taken by photojournalist Shiho Fukada, who reported on elderly women in Japanese prisons as part of the article, “For Many of Japan’s Elderly Women, Prison Is a Haven” for Bloomberg Business Weekly.  Fukada writes, “Almost 1 in 5 women in Japanese prisons is a senior. Their crimes are usually minor—9 in 10 senior women who’ve been convicted were found guilty of shoplifting.”  

She adds, “Why have so many otherwise law-abiding elderly women resorted to petty theft?”

Explore this question by reviewing Fukada’s images below or by clicking here for the full article. After you review the images, prepare to discuss the following:

  • How does Fukada pose and photograph these women? What does she include in the images, and what does she exclude?
  • Why do you think Fukada chooses to present these stories with these images? What story is she trying to tell with these images?

“I was 84 when I came to prison for the first time.” Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2017.

Ms. F, 89
Has stolen rice, strawberries, cold medicine
Second term, sentenced to a year and a half
Has a daughter and a grandchild

“I was living alone on welfare. I used to live with my daughter’s family and used all my savings taking care of an abusive and violent son-in-law.”

Ms. A. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2017.

Ms. A, 67
Has stolen clothing
First term, sentenced to two years, three months
Has a husband, two sons, and three grandchildren

“I shoplifted more than 20 times, all clothes, not expensive ones, mostly on sale on the street. It’s not that I was in need of money. The first time I shoplifted, I didn’t get caught. I learned that I could obtain what I wanted without paying for it, which I found fun, amusing, exciting.

My husband has been supportive. He writes me regularly. My two sons are angry—my three grandchildren don’t know I’m here. They think I’m hospitalized.”

Ms. K. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2017.

Ms. K, 74
Has stolen Coca-Cola, orange juice
Third term, sentence undisclosed
Has a son and a daughter

“I was living on welfare. It was hard. When I’m released, I will manage to live with 1,000 yen [$9] a day. I don’t have anything to look forward to outside.”

Ms. O. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2017.

Ms. O, 78
Has stolen energy drinks, coffee, tea, a rice ball, a mango
Third term, sentenced to one year, five months
Has a daughter and a grandson

“Prison is an oasis for me—a place for relaxation and comfort. I don’t have freedom here, but I have nothing to worry about, either. There are many people to talk to. They provide us with nutritious meals three times a day. My daughter visits once a month. She says ‘I don’t feel sorry for you. You’re pathetic.’ I think she’s right.”

Extension Activities:

DISCUSS: In small groups, or as a class, discuss the following:

  • According to Fukada’s reporting, what do elderly women in Japan say they need?
  • How do the lives of the elderly women in this story compare to the lives of elderly women in your communities?

CREATE: Portraits reflecting the stories of elderly women in your community

1. Interview a woman in your community who is 65 or older about her daily life. Consider the following as you devise your questions:

  • What can you ask to learn about your subject’s daily life?
  • What can you ask to learn about how she feels about her daily life?
  • What can you ask to learn more about the challenges she is facing?

2. Using the information from your interview, work with your interview subject to pose and take portraits that accurately reflect what you learned about her life

3. Write a caption that supports your image. Your caption should help the viewer understand what you learned about the woman you interviewed and how you decided to compose the portrait.

4. Share your final portraits with Fukada and Pulitzer Center by emailing them to education@pulitzercenter.org.

Educator Notes: 

This lesson is written to be explored independently by students, but would benefit from facilitation for the discussion questions. The lesson should take 30-45 minutes and is aligned with the following Common Core Standards:



Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.1


Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.


Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

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