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The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate climbed to 5.2 percent in May, nearing a six-year high as job availability dropped to its lowest level on record, the government said Tuesday.

Rising from 5.0 percent in April, the jobless rate was at its highest point since 5.2 percent in September 2003.

Economists said the latest data suggest it may be just a matter of time before the unemployment rate tops its postwar high of 5.5 percent, recorded in April 2003, despite some positive recent signs of corporate activity.

The number of people out of work jumped by 770,000 from a year earlier to 3.47 million, the largest ever year-on-year rise and marking the seventh straight monthly increase, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said in a preliminary report.

Of the total, 1.10 million were laid off, an increase of 460,000, the ministry said.

Separate data by the labor ministry showed the ratio of job offers to job seekers in May fell to a seasonally adjusted 0.44, the lowest reading since comparable records started in 1963.

The ratio, down from 0.46 in April, fell for the 12th straight month and indicates there were only 44 jobs available for every 100 people seeking a position.

“It is becoming less possible to re-enter the labor market as there are few positions available,” said Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe. “We will do our best to improve the severe employment situation.”

Internal affairs ministry data showed the number of jobholders shrank at the fastest yearly pace, down 1.36 million from a year earlier to 63.42 million. Manufacturers and construction companies were particularly aggressive in slashing their workforces in response to the recession. The number of jobholders fell for the 16th consecutive month.

Earlier in June, the government said the economy had apparently bottomed out, citing some signs of recovery in exports and industrial production. But concern is rising among workers over job security and falling wages.

The jobless rate has been continuously on the rise since the 4.1 percent recorded in January.

Isao Takumi, an economist at Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co., said the real unemployment rate is potentially much higher than the reported 5.2 percent, as the number of people outside the labor force has grown rapidly in recent months. This indicates an increasing number of people have given up looking for work, Takumi said.

The number of nonworkers, who are excluded from the jobless rate, swelled 620,000 from a year earlier to 43.58 million.

“The jobless rate could reach around 5.5 percent in July,” Takumi said. “Unlike the first several months of this year, the rate probably won’t rise so sharply, but it is unlikely to show a downtrend until next summer, in 2010.”

In May, the jobless rate for men grew 0.1 percentage point to 5.4 percent, while that for women rose 0.3 percentage point to 4.9 percent.

According to the labor ministry data, the number of job offers fell 2.2 percent from April, while the number of job seekers rose 2.4 percent.

The number of new job offers plunged 34.5 percent from a year earlier. By industry, new jobs fell the most in the manufacturing sector, down 55.9 percent, followed by 46.4 percent in the information and communications industry.

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