TOKYO — Hundreds of Japanese police searched on Thursday for a convicted thief who escaped from prison and was believed to be on a small island with abundant hide-outs — about 1,000 houses made vacant by an aging and shrinking population.

Tatsuma Hirao, 27, has been at large since Sunday, when he fled from a low-security prison in Ehime prefecture while serving a 5 ½ year sentence for theft.

Police suspect he drove a stolen car along a 70-kilometer (43-mile) bridge and highway system connecting several islands near Ehime and got off on the island of Mukaishima, near Hiroshima, which has a population of about 16,000.

TV reports showed police visiting every home and searching empty houses and huts. Vehicles were stopped at checkpoints, causing rare traffic jams on the usually quiet island.

Several cases of theft have been reported to police since the jailbreak, and Hirano's fingerprints have been detected. The car which police believe he used for his getaway was found on the island.

Police released Hirao's photo and asked for help finding him, while urging residents to be cautious and lock their homes and vehicles. Police also used drones and sniffer dogs.

As the search continued, residents have felt increasingly uneasy, and parents began escorting their children to school, island official Sumiko Nishimoto said.

Hirao was arrested in 2013 after robbing barbershops in Fukuoka and other cities on Kyushu island in southern Japan, according to local reports. It wasn't clear why he targeted barbers.

Japan has a relatively low crime rate, and prison escapes are rare. Its population is declining and the average age is rising quickly.