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The labor market continued to tighten in January as more people gave up on finding work and the ratio of job offers to job seekers hit its lowest level in nearly 5 1/2 years, the government said Friday in a preliminary report.

The unemployment rate eased for the first time in three months to a seasonally adjusted 4.1 percent, signaling more people gave up on finding jobs.

The offers-to-seekers ratio sank for an eighth consecutive month to 0.67.

The numbers prompted Prime Minister Taro Aso to tell labor minister Yoichi Masuzoe to “make all-out efforts” to bolster employment.

While the unemployment rate is down from 4.3 percent in December, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry repeated its view that labor conditions are “sharply deteriorating.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura pledged to bolster job security after the budget bills are enacted and said the government will urge companies to cooperate in any initiatives.

In the reporting month, the number of jobless grew to 210,000 from the a year ago to 2.77 million, expanding for a third straight month, the ministry said in the report.

The number who either left the labor market or stopped looking rose by 50,000.

By the ministry’s definition, people who stop seeking jobs are considered out of the job market, not jobless. This can reduce the unemployment rate.

The number of men who stopped looking for work shot up by 220,000, but the number of women who gave up shrank by 170,000, the ministry said.

Those working shorter hours — up to nine hours per week — surged by 310,000 compared with the previous year to 2.13 million, and 230,000 of them were women, an official said.

This suggests more women were compelled to work part time to support their households while men remain jobless, the official said.

The official speculated that many of the men who lost their jobs are probably in a state of shock and do not feel like looking for a new job because they don’t think they will be able to get steady work.

Female part-time workers are expected to be dismissed through corporate labor adjustments, while men who were temporarily out of the labor market are likely to return. Those people might push up the jobless figure, the official added.

The jobless rate for men in January stood at 4.2 percent, down 0.3 point from December, and the rate for women inched down 0.1 point to 4.1 percent.

The overall unemployment rate fell below the average market forecast of 4.6 percent in a Kyodo News survey.

Data released by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry separately showed there were 67 jobs available for every 100 job seekers.

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