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The countdown has begun ahead of Japan’s plunge into a period of shrinking population that will have a serious impact on the nation’s economy and society, especially the labor force and social welfare, including the pension system.

According to the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry’s statistics on population dynamics for 2004, about 1,111,000 babies were born in the nation that year, a record low since statistics were first compiled in 1899.

The number of births-minus-deaths also marked an all-time low at about 82,000. For the first time, the natural increase in the population came in below 100,000 (declining from 108,659 in 2003). Conspicuously, 25 of the nation’s 47 prefectures saw a natural decrease in their population.

The fertility rate — the number of children on average that a woman is expected to give birth to during her lifetime — has recorded an all-time low for four consecutive years, with the rate for 2004 hitting a low of 1.2888, down from 1.2905 for 2003. The number of births in 2004 represented a decrease of about 13,000 from the previous year. These figures translate into a prediction that Japan’s population will start shrinking in 2007 and decline to about 100 million in 2050.

The increase in the proportion of Japan’s elderly people is reflected by the fact that the number of deaths has topped 1 million for two straight years, with the year 2004 registering 1,028,708 deaths, the second highest total following the all-time high in 1947, immediately after World War II. There were 30,227 suicides in Japan in 2004. Although the figure is about 2,000 fewer than in 2003, all members of Japanese society should be aware that this is an abnormal situation.

It is said that the fertility rate must be at least 2.08 for the population to level off or grow. In 1974, Japan’s fertility rate fell short of 2.08 for the first time and has been on the decline ever since. The fact that the nation’s fertility rate has continued to fall in the past decade indicates that various measures the government has taken since 1990 to give people the incentive to have babies have not born fruit.

For example, even as the number of nurseries has increased, they have not been of much help for many mothers who, due to the demands of shift work or long working hours in general, have difficulty finding nurseries that operate until the time they can come and pick up their children.

Statistics for 1990 came as a shock to the government as the fertility rate, at 1.57, fell short of the 1.58 registered in 1966, the year of the Fiery Horse in the Chinese zodiac. In such a year, many people try to avoid having babies due to the belief that girls born in that year will bring destruction to their husbands.

The trend of getting married at an older age continues. This means that, because most women in Japan have babies in marriage, more women are giving birth to their first babies at an older age, which naturally leads to a decrease in the birthrate. In 2004, the average age at which men married for the first time was 29.6; the corresponding figure for women was 27.8. For both sexes, the ages were 0.2 year older than in 2003. The average age at which women give birth to their first babies has gradually risen over four decades — from 25.7 in 1965 to 26.7 in 1985, 27.5 in 1995 and 28.9 in 2004.

An official of the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry says there is a good sign. While women aged 25 to 29 gave birth to 25,730 fewer babies in 2004 than in 2003 (for a total of 370,245), women aged 30 to 39 gave birth to more babies in 2004 than in 2003 — 7,363 more for women 30 to 34 (for a total of 415,948) and 10,753 more for women 35 to 39 (for a total of 150,242).

These figures should be interpreted to mean that a generation of women that had postponed marriage and childbirth have started having babies. But this is unlikely to stop or reverse the downtrend in the total fertility rate.

Amid signs pointing to the start of population shrinkage, the government plans to set up a blue-ribbon committee to discuss measures to stop the downward trend. It will naturally come with financial incentives for married couples to have more children, such as fatter child allowances and tax breaks for families with children. But the committee should pay more attention to creating an environment conducive to the husband and the wife’s jointly rearing their children.

In other words, both men and women should be assisted so that they can work and still have a family life. To achieve this, it may be necessary for the government to work out measures to encourage businesses to shorten working hours for both men and women.

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