Japan: birth rate rises; suicides fall

The demographic situation improved in Japan where birth rate rose last year for the first time in six years in 2006, while the number of suicides fell below the 30,000-case mark for the first time in four, the government said.

The birth rate stood at 1.32 babies per woman in 2006, up 0.06 point from a record low of 1.26 in 2005, the Health Ministry said on its Web site.

"The latest figure alone doesn't indicate whether there is a turnaround in the country's recent trend of falling number of births," said Emi Sato of the vital statistic division with the Health Ministry.

She said more data on birth rates and other vital figures, including number of marriages, studied over the next few years, would be needed to spot a trend.

Ministry officials say the rise in the country's birth rate was due partly to Japan's economic recovery from a decade-long slowdown, which encouraged more people to get married and have babies.

Japan's birth rate was 1.33 in 2001, 1.32 in 2002 and 1.29 in both 2003 and 2004 - the lowest figure since the government began releasing birth rate data in 1947, according to the ministry.

Accounting for infant mortality and other factors, fewer than 2.1 babies per Japanese woman means negative population growth, with potentially dire consequences for the economy and the care of the elderly.

A declining birth rate threatens Japan with a potential a labor shortage, tax shortfalls and pension problems as fewer taxpayers support an aging population.

In an international comparison, the birth rate in the United States was 2.6 in 2005 and 2.1 in France, both preliminary figures, the report said.

It was 1.36 in Germany, 1.33 in Italy, 1.75 in Sweden, all in 2004, and 1.71 in Britain in 2003. The birth rate stood at 1.13 in South Korea, 1.25 in Singapore.

Last year, the number of births in Japan totaled 1,092,662 babies, exceeding the number of deaths by just 8,174, the report showed. Marriages in Japan totaled 730,973 last year, up 16,708, while divorces totaled 257,484 people, down 4,433.

To encourage women to have more babies, the Japanese government is trying to build more daycare centers and encourage more men to take paternity leave. Some local governments offer special subsidies for couples to have more babies.

But many Japanese companies typically expect long hours from workers, and many women with careers feel they cannot meet the demands of both work and family and have to choose one or the other.

In Wednesday's report, the Health Ministry also said the number of suicides came to 29,887 last year, the first time the figure came in below the 30,000 mark in four years.

Wakana Niimura, a Health Ministry official, said the statistics do not include cases in which it is difficult to determine whether it is a suicide. The National Police Agency was to release more detailed suicide figures later this year.