Book review: Urban Food Deserts in Japan

Book review: Urban Food Deserts in Japan


Reviewed by Rias Ratri Novita and Zahrah Khaerani

First Published:

08 Apr 2024, 1:14 am


Book review: Urban Food Deserts in Japan

Based on: Nobuyuki Iwama, Tatsuto Asakawa, and Koichi Tanaka, et al., Urban Food Deserts in Japan, Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2021; 237 pp.: ISBN: 978-981-16-0892-6, £109.99/€129.99 (hbk)

The equitable availability of food in an area depends on access to it. Low access to healthy food in an area (a food desert) harms food consumption habits. Testa et al. (2021) explain that food deserts are associated with several unfavourable social, economic and health consequences (such as heart health). Deserts can occur in various regions, including incredibly densely populated urban areas, especially in Japan.

Many things can cause food deserts. However, Urban Food Deserts in Japan by Nobuyuki Iwama, Tatsuto Asakawa, Koichi Tanaka, et al. narrows down the factors causing food deserts based on: (1) the existence of socially vulnerable elderly people in an area; and (2) existing conditions – the destructive impact on the global environment (decreased number of nearby grocery stores and decreased access to food) and/or weakened humanitarian relations (decreased cooperation and decreased local social capital). This book contains case studies of several cities in Japan as well as of efforts to prevent and solve food desert problems.

Chapter 1 is an introductory chapter that explains the definition of a food desert and the issues behind it. This chapter begins with the case of an elderly man in an area who has terrible eating habits because he finds it challenging to eat healthy food. Next, the author discusses the relationship between food deserts and bad eating habits owing to social and life problems in people with a vulnerable social status. This chapter is also complemented by research in other countries, such as the UK and the USA, conducted in various academic fields, including geography, nutrition and medicine.

In Chapter 2, the author focuses on the factors affecting elderly people with limited access to food and analyses changes in the surrounding environment using statistical data. Data show a decline in the birth rate in Japan, giving rise to estimates of an increase in the age of the elderly in the future and changes in life goals in society. This will result in the vulnerability of social life, such as weakening communication between individuals and increasing economic inequality. In addition, according to the author, the elimination of laws related to retail also had an impact on food deserts in Japan. In terms of environmental changes, this chapter presents the results of population surveys and estimates of what will happen in the next few years.

Food access and social capital, essential points in food deserts, are explained more deeply in Chapter 3. The author discusses food access through geographical factors presented statistically by comparing four testing methods. Measuring food access produces a food desert map that makes it easier to detect the presence of the nearest community and retail locations. The author also has a website where readers can access food desert maps in Japan and the USA. Meanwhile, social capital measurements are carried out using two methods, simple and comprehensive, closely related to social relations between humans.

Chapter 4 discusses the existence of urban food deserts in the city of Tokyo, especially the Minato area, to see the availability of food access that is easily accessible to the elderly. The survey was divided into two, namely carried out in districts A and B. In District A, 44.6% of elderly people had poor eating habits. In District A, both high- and low-income earners were equally at risk of experiencing malnutrition. District B is a business district with many public institutions, embassies and offices. Even though food access is higher in District B, the risk of malnutrition in District B is higher compared to that in District A. Namely, 55.2% of the elderly in District B were at high risk of malnutrition. This is because food prices at the nearest shops are relatively expensive. The weakness of this chapter is that more than the data obtained is needed to represent the geography of the people in the Minato area, so additional surveys need to be carried out to understand the characteristics of urban food deserts in Tokyo City properly.

Chapter 5 discusses the elderly, who have a high risk of malnutrition owing to living close to shopping centres and also owing to their poor eating habits. City C is the centre of the city in the Tokyo area; in this area, many elderly people have difficulty fulfilling their food needs owing to the limited availability of food. Apart from that, the survey results state that 53.2% of elderly respondents expressed difficulty in making purchases, so more than 50% of them had a high potential for experiencing malnutrition. Elderly men have a higher potential for experiencing malnutrition than elderly women owing to unhealthy food patterns. Elderly eating behaviour is not only influenced by the individual and by age. It is also influenced by social ties with neighbours and family and by how often the elderly participate in community events or eat together. City C is divided into five clusters based on the availability of grocery shops and household life, namely Clusters A (low-risk districts), B (risk-free districts), C and E (high-risk districts) and D (medium-risk districts). The advantage of this chapter is that it carries out a complete survey by collecting documents about City C then going directly to the field, after which it conducts questionnaires and interviews with people who live in the city centre.

In Chapter 6, the authors discuss food desert issues and analyse the significant living environment factors that trigger them. This research used a large number of questionnaire surveys and statistical analyses. Assessments on mobile-selling vehicle services operating in the city are also added. This survey suggested that two main living environmental factors exacerbate old residents’ healthy eating habits: local-level social capital and food access. The mobile-selling vehicle supports disadvantaged elderly residents’ daily lives. However, the vehicle stops do not fully cover the high malnutrition risk of elderly people in residential areas. These analyses suggest that the use of mobile-selling vehicles is not only in the food access areas but also in the poverty and low social capital areas. The authors think that the government should consider more shopping support services from the food desert issue point of view and improve this problem. This chapter also discusses food deserts in the Great East Japan Earthquake’s disaster areas, which are growing much faster than others.

In the last chapter, the authors mainly discuss strategies for addressing food desert issues in Japan. They classify the countermeasures against shopping disadvantages into three types: dining together, food deliveries and improving food access. They find that it is impossible to sustain unprofitable businesses, even when they are helpful to disadvantaged shoppers. They also find it essential to think about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of providing services and creating new businesses. This chapter discusses some business management cases relating to food deserts. It examines the possibility of volunteer taxi passenger transportation by private vehicles playing an essential role in public transport in poor food-access areas. The authors then classify the new countermeasures against shopping disadvantage into seven types: business expansion; entry from a different industry; cooperation with different industries; resident volunteering; cooperation with industry, government, scholars and the local community; welfare business; and new business.

This book comprehensively discusses food deserts, including their definition, causative factors, case studies and prevention. It is systematically organised and structured, making it easy to understand its content and purposes. Each chapter uses references related to the information cited by the author, but not all chapters include a conclusion. The book contains images that allow the reader to visualise the information. Overall, it is highly recommended, with detailed information allowing readers to understand Japan’s urban food deserts.


We are grateful to the Indonesia Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP RI) for funding and supporting our master’s studies at IPB University.


Testa A, Jackson DB, Semenza DC, et al. (2021) Food deserts and cardiovascular health among young adults. Public Health Nutrition 24(1): 117–124.

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