The number of babies born in 2001 was a record low 1.17 million, down 20,000 from 2000, a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey found.

The birthrate likewise hit an all-time low of 1.33 in 2001, after rising slightly to 1.36 in 2000 from the previous record low 1.34 in 1999, according to the survey released Friday.

The brief uptick in 2000 is thought to have been triggered by the “millennium effect,” and the latest survey confirms the declining birthrate is proceeding on a long-term basis, analysts said.

An estimate of the nation’s population by 2050 compiled by the ministry and released in January was based on an estimated birthrate of 1.34 for 2001. The latest data show that figure was overly optimistic.

The government uses the population estimate as a basis when calculating pension premiums and forming other social security policies. Confirmation that the population is shrinking faster than expected will no doubt affect discussions on revising the public pension system in 2004, the analysts said.

2001 ministry statistics show 1,170,665 babies were born last year, down 19,882.

The birthrate in cities was lower than the national average, including Tokyo at 1. The birthrate represents the average number of babies born to a woman in her lifetime.

The average age in 2001 for first marriages for women increased by one-fifth of a year to 27.2, and the average age of mothers who gave birth to their first child also rose by a fifth of a year to 28.2.

The number of babies born to mothers in their late 20s fell by 20,816.

The ministry said women’s tendency to marry later and take time after marriage before giving birth are the major factors for the falling birthrate.

Meanwhile, a record high 285,917 couples divorced in 2001, and 970,313 people died.

The chief cause of death was cancer. It claimed more than 300,000 lives, accounting for 31 percent of all deaths, followed by heart disease at 15.3 percent and strokes at 13.6 percent. A total of 29,333 people committed suicide in 2001, down slightly. More than 30,000 people took their own lives in each of the previous three years.

The natural increase in population, which is births minus deaths, was 200,352. In 14 of the 47 prefectures, the number of deaths surpassed births.

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