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The seasonally adjusted jobless rate in January returned to the record high 5.5 percent posted in October as beleaguered companies continued to shed jobs, the government said Friday.

The figure was up from the revised 5.3 percent registered in December.

The number of unemployed rose for the first time in three months, by 130,000 from a year earlier to 3.57 million, the Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry said in a preliminary report.

The jobless rate for men rose 0.1 percentage point from the previous month to 5.6 percent, moving closer to the record 5.8 percent in September. The rate for women rose 0.3 point to a record 5.5 percent.

Masato Chino, director of the ministry’s Labor Force Statistics Office, said the rise highlights the severity of the labor market.

“The number of unemployed is growing among heads of households, and those who left their jobs involuntarily are also increasing,” he said. “Household budgets are becoming tighter as a result of that, and women are looking for work to help,” thus increasing the number of unemployed women.

The number of unemployed heads of households was the third highest on record, rising by 60,000 from January 2002 to 1.04 million. The government began compiling the jobless data in 1953.

The number of those who were forced out of work rose by 110,000 from a year earlier to 1.21 million, while those who started looking for work out of a need for income, mainly women, increased by 40,000 to 420,000.

The number of people at work fell for the 22nd consecutive month, down by 640,000 from a year before to 62.03 million.

Commenting on the figures, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said his immediate task is to secure the swift enactment and distribution of the fiscal 2003 budget being deliberated in the Diet, which he is confident will help create jobs.

“The enactment of the budget before the end of the current fiscal year would be the most effective way” to deal with the situation, Koizumi told reporters at his office.

Economic and fiscal policy minister Heizo Takenaka told a news conference the unemployment data underscores the importance of matching demand and supply of labor.

“The ratio of job offers to job seekers is improving, and I have renewed my belief that resolving the mismatch in employment is important,” Takenaka said.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said in a separate report Friday that the ratio of job offers to job seekers edged up 0.01 point from December to a seasonally adjusted 0.60, meaning there were 60 offers for every 100 people applying for jobs.

The number of offers rose 0.9 percent from December and the number of seekers fell 1.9 percent

But an analyst said the unemployment data points to tough times ahead.

“Companies are trimming their labor force because deflation is keeping their sales and profits low,” said Seiji Adachi, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston in Tokyo.

The government’s plan to accelerate the disposal of nonperforming loans at banks “is likely to weigh on the labor market in addition to that,” he said.

The ministry had initially put the unemployment rate for December at 5.5 percent, but revised the figure to 5.3 percent as part of a review of its data for 2002.

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