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The nation’s unemployment rate hit a record high of 4.6 percent in February, rising 0.2 percentage point higher than the rate recorded the previous month, the Management and Coordination Agency said on Tuesday.

An agency official said the monthly statistics suggest that employment remains severe and that jobless rates over the next months should be closely watched.

According to the preliminary report, the number of jobless has topped 3 million for the first time and is estimated at about 3.13 million. The seasonally adjusted number is the highest since 1953, when the government first began compiling employment data, according to the agency.

The jobless rate had been hovering at the previous record of 4.4 percent from November to January.

The jobless rate for men hit a record 4.7 percent, rising from its record-high of 4.5 percent over the same period, while the the rate for women hit a record 4.6 percent, exceeding the previous record high of 4.4 percent set in November.

Alarmed by the worsening statistic, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi vowed to step up efforts to handle the situation, saying to reporters in the Diet building, “I must make greater efforts for improvement.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka, the government’s chief spokesman, noted an increase in the number of people, especially young ones, who are leaving their jobs willingly. He indicated that companies’ current moves to restructure themselves may be causing the trend.

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