Japan’s unemployment rate edged down 0.1 percent to a six-year low of 4.4 percent in December.

The government said Friday the December data brought the nation’s average unemployment rate in 2004 to 4.7 percent, down 0.6 percentage point from the previous year and representing a second straight year of decline.

The annual average rate fell below 5 percent for the first time since 2000, reflecting an overall economic pickup that started in summer 2003, according to a government official.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told a news conference that, while he was not fully satisfied with the 2004 data, he though it likely that job opportunities for young people and housewives had increased considerably.

“I hope this trend will continue,” he added.

In December, the number of jobless people totaled 2.70 million, down 300,000 from a year earlier and marking a 19th straight month of decline. It stayed below the 3 million mark for the second consecutive month, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said.

The average number of unemployed people plunged 370,000 from a year before to 3.13 million in 2004. The margin of decline in both the unemployment rate and the number of jobless people in the reporting year was the largest on record. Statistics have been compiled since 1946, the official said.

The unemployment rate for December was lower than the market forecast of 4.5 percent.

Koji Fukaya, an economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, said the overall data appeared to suggest a structural improvement in the labor market. He voiced concern, however, about the slower pace of growth in the number of jobholders since summer.

“The data on jobholders reflect the fact that the economy has leveled off and production has been affected,” Fukaya said.

The number of people with jobs fell 10,000 in December from a year earlier to 63.06 million, marking a second straight month of decline.

In December, the unemployment rate for men dropped 0.1 percentage point to 4.6 percent, while that for women fell by 0.1 point to 4.2 percent.

The number of people made redundant stood at 760,000 in the reporting month, down 140,000 from a year earlier. The number of people who quit their jobs totaled 940,000, down 20,000 from a year before.

By sector, the number of jobholders rose in the services, medical and welfare industries, but fell in the construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail sectors.

By age group, the jobless rate for men aged 15 to 24 was the highest among all age brackets of both sexes, standing at 8.3 percent in December. It fell 1.7 percentage point from a year earlier, however, to the lowest level since December 1998, when the rate stood at 7.7 percent.

In 2004, the 15-24 age group saw the highest unemployment rate for both men and women. The rate for men in this age bracket reached 10.9 percent, while that for women stood at 8.3 percent, although the data showed improvement from the previous year.

The ratio of job offers to job-seekers amounted to 0.94 in December, up 0.02 point from November, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said in a separate report.

The figure means that 94 jobs were available for every 100 job-seekers. The data beat the market consensus of 0.92.

The number of job offers rose 0.2 percent from November, while that of job-seekers fell 1.5 percent, the ministry said.

The number of new job offers in December increased 10.3 percent from a year earlier, it said.

The average ratio of job offers to job-seekers in 2004 rose 0.19 point from the previous year to 0.83, meaning there were 83 job offers for every 100 job-seekers.

The average number of job offers in 2004 climbed 17.1 percent from the previous year, while that for job-seekers declined 8.8 percent.

A labor ministry official said: “Companies are eager to recruit people and we can see the continued trend of improvement in the labor market. But we have to pay attention to weaker production and export sectors.”

Household spending up

The average monthly spending by wage-earning households rose a real 1.5 percent in 2004 from the previous year, the first increase in seven years, reflecting higher spending on telecommunications, education and entertainment, the government said Friday.

The average monthly spending by salaried workers’ households rose to 330,836 yen, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said in a preliminary report.

Their average monthly income in 2004 came to 530,028 yen, up 1.0 percent from a year before in real terms.

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