The percentage of the population paying premiums into the national pension system came to 79.6 percent in fiscal 1997, the first drop below 80 percent in 36 years, the Social Insurance Agency said in a report issued Friday.

According to the annual report, the prolonged recession was the main factor behind the decline.

It was also found that 14.1 percent of those covered by the system were by law exempt from paying premiums because they received less income than in the previous year, a case that in many instances resulted from unemployment.

Coupled with those who were exempt from paying because they were on welfare or in other such circumstances, the percentage of those who did not have to pay pension dues came to 18.6 percent, the highest figure since fiscal 1961, the agency said.

The national pension system provides pensions mainly for those who are not eligible to be covered by corporate pensions, such as the self-employed. In principle, all citizens over the age of 20 who are not contributing to a corporate pension plan are to pay premiums into the national pension.

In addition, the report shows that as of the March 1998 end of fiscal 1997, 70.34 million people were enrolled in the public pension program, a scant 0.2 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

The year-on-year growth was the lowest since fiscal 1987, highlighting the fact that the rise in the number of people receiving public pensions was much faster than the rate at which people were joining it — a phenomena agency officials described as a symptom of Japan’s rapidly graying society.

Friday’s report shows that when combined with those under the welfare insurance system, 31.4 million people were receiving some form of public pension in fiscal 1997.

The figure was 1.05 million, or 3.4 percent, greater than the previous fiscal year’s figure but presented a stark contrast to the meager rise of 150,000 in fresh contributors to such programs.

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