Hundreds of Japanese police converge on tiny island in manhunt for escaped thief

Japanese authorities launched a dragnet Thursday on a quiet island for a convicted thief who escaped from prison.

Tatsuma Hirao, 27, was being pursued by hundreds of Japanese police since he escaped jail in Ehime prefecture Sunday while he was serving 5 1/2 years for theft.

Police believe Hirao drove a stolen car and crossed a bridge to the nearby island of Mukaishima, located 58 miles east of Hiroshima. The tiny island contains about 1,000 possible hideouts due to the abundance of vacant homes left by an aging and shrinking population.

The island itself has a population of about 16,000.

The Japan Times reported Hirao began his sentence in December at Matsuyama Prison’s Oi shipyard – one of the county’s prisons that doesn’t contain perimeter walls. Japan’s Justice Ministry said that at least 19 others have escaped the shipyard prison since 1961.

Police suspect Hirao may have escaped through an unlocked window on the prison’s first floor Sunday night, according to the Japan Times. A car and money was found later to be stolen from a nearby house and the vehicle was later discovered near a bridge in Onomichi, according to the newspaper.

TV footage showed police scouring every home and searching empty houses and huts. Vehicles stopped at checkpoints caused rare traffic jams on the mostly quiet island.

Several robberies have been reported since Hirao’s jailbreak, police said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ryan Gaydos is an editor for Fox News. Follow him on Twitter @RyanGaydos.