2005 may see Japan’s population shrink for the first time, according to health ministry figures released Tuesday.

The population fell by 31,034 people in the January-June period, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said in a preliminary report, which points to a contraction in the annual figure if the trend continues.

The number of deaths totaled 568,671 in the first half of the year, while the number of babies born came to 537,637.

“We have seen the number of deaths exceeding births in individual months, but we have never seen it happen on a half-year basis,” a ministry official said.

“A recovery is usually seen in the latter half of the year . . . but we cannot rule out the possibility that the overall population might shrink this year, depending on the circumstances.”

The natural population increase — births minus deaths — in the January-June period is in negative territory partly due to a flu epidemic and a continuing low birthrate.

About 100,000 deaths a month were recorded in the January-March period, flu being one cause. The figure exceeds the number of births by 8,500 to 17,700 per month, according to the statistics.

The number of deaths fell from April, but there were 2,400 to 5,800 fewer births per month during the January-June period compared with the previous year.

With the population declining this year, it may begin to shrink on a yearly basis two years earlier than government projections.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, which is under the health ministry, has estimated the population will peak at 127.74 million in 2006.

The statistics include foreign residents and Japanese abroad who have a registered domicile here.

Separate government statistics released in June show the birthrate sank below 1.29 in calendar 2004, an all-time low for the fourth straight year.

The statistics, compiled by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, show the male population decreased as of the end of March from the previous year for the first time.

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