Food ‘refugees’ in Japan: Government survey reveals strong need to improve food access aid for elderly consumers

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Close to 90% of municipalities in Japan need to improve accessibility to food for elderly consumers. ©Getty Images
Close to 90% of municipalities in Japan need to improve accessibility to food for elderly consumers. ©Getty Images

Related tags Japan elderly

Close to 90% of municipalities in Japan need to improve accessibility to food for elderly consumers amid the country’s shift to an ageing population, according to new government data.

These were the findings from the 2023 edition of the annual Food Access Issues survey conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), carried out across 1,000 municipalities in the country.

“Unfortunately, out of the 1,083 responding municipalities, 971 or 89.7% answered that more measures to improve food access issues still need to be formulated,”​ the MAFF Secretariat for New Business and Food said via a formal statement.

“Within these, 70.6% already had some kind of measures implemented [but] these mostly covered areas such as transportation (e.g. community buses and taxis to reach food) or support that was given to private businesses (e.g. subsidies and grants) but were not found to be sufficiently effective for consumers to overcome food access issues.

“The major challenges requiring more of such measures to be implemented were primarily the increase of ageing residents, as well as more small local retail businesses closing down thus reducing their access.”

As a matter of fact, the survey has been consistently showing municipalities highlighting rising requirements for more countermeasures since 2016 – the results in the most recent survey showed the largest leap so far of 2.5% from 87.2% in 2022 to 89.7% in 2023.

“It is becoming more and more inconvenient for people, especially the elderly, to purchase food and drink, and this is happening not only in depopulated areas but also in urban areas,”​ MAFF added.

“These consumers who are experiencing difficulties have been dubbed ‘shopping refugees'’, ‘`people with limited shopping needs'’, and ‘`people with shopping difficulties, and their number is increasing, so much so that this ‘food access issue’ has become a social problem in Japan.”

MAFF considers a broad range of industry challenges to fall under food access issues, including areas such as the abolishment of accessible shopping streets, poor local transportation, lack of nursing care or social welfare and so on, requiring cross-collaboration between local governments, private companies and NGOs.

“Small and medium cities tend to feel the pinch of food inaccessibility more, due to a simultaneous deterioration of accessibility conditions such as public transportation abolishment, along with an increase in the voluntary surrender of driver’s licenses (usually by elderly residents),”​ the survey stated.

“But regardless of municipality size, when local governments were asked about the percentage of coverage afforded by the countermeasures across their municipalities, only about 12.4% confidently responded that these covered at least 90% of their residents.

“A further 25.7% said that coverage was between 30% to 60%, and the majority (37.1%) did not respond.”

This indicated that there some 40% to 70% more coverage is needed in many municipalities to meet local resident needs, a number which could be even higher if the results of the non-respondents were included.

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