The birthrate and the number of births in Japan sank to record lows last year, accelerating the widespread graying of the population, according to data released Thursday by the Health and Welfare Ministry.

A total of 1,177,663 babies were born in 1999, down 25,484 from 1998 and falling below the 1,187,064 logged in 1995, which had been the lowest figure since the government began compiling population statistics in 1899, according to the ministry.

Ministry officials attributed the decline to late marriages, which typically lead to fewer children for mothers in their 20s, but they also suggested that women refrained from having babies last year to give birth to “millennium babies” in 2000.

The average number of babies born to a Japanese woman throughout her lifetime dropped by 0.04 to 1.34 in 1999, breaking the record low of 1.38 set in 1998.

The number of babies born to mothers in their 20s fell by some 27,600 last year, and the trend of increase seen until 1998 in births to women in their early 30s was reversed last year, the ministry said.

The average age of mothers who gave birth to their first child rose by 0.1 year to 27.9 in 1999, another record high. The average age for first marriages for both sexes also increased by 0.1 year to 28.7 for men and 26.8 for women.

Meanwhile, a record 250,538 couples divorced in 1999, up 7,355 from 1998 and bringing the divorce rate to an all-time high of 2 per 1,000 people. Divorces among couples who had lived together for more than 25 years also increased sharply.

A total of 982,020 people died last year, up 45,000 from 1998 for the second-highest annual number of deaths in postwar Japan following 1947.

Of the dead, 31,385 people committed suicide in 1999, topping the 30,000 mark for the second straight year. Suicides among men numbered 22,387 last year, up 38 from 1998.

The chief cause of death last year was cancer, for the 19th consecutive year, accounting for 29.6 percent of all deaths. However, suicide was the leading cause of death among people in their late 20s and 30s. Suicide ranked second among those in their 40s and early 50s, according to the statistics.

Subtracting the number of deaths from births, Japan experienced its record-lowest natural increase in population of 195,643, down 71,000 from 1998.

The number of deaths surpassed that of births in 15 of Japan’s 47 prefectures — Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Yamagata, Niigata, Toyama, Wakayama, Tottori, Shimane, Yamaguchi, Tokushima, Ehime, Kochi, Oita and Kagoshima.

“It is quite alarming that population is in a trend of natural decline in as many as 15 prefectures,” a health ministry official said.