Japanese decrease in number

The number of deaths outpaced the number of births in Japan for the first time during the January-June period, the government said Tuesday, prompting concerns that the overall population could start shrinking as early as this year.

The Health Ministry said 568,671 people died in the first half of this year, more than the 537,637 that were born, according to preliminary results from data it had compiled.

It was the first time that Japan has marked a decrease over a half-year period in its natural population, which is calculated by subtracting deaths from births. It does not account for other fluxes in the total population, such as people leaving or entering the country, said ministry spokesman Reiji Murayama.

Local media widely reported that if the trend continues, it could mean Japan's overall population may shrink for the first time in 2005, two years earlier than the government has been projecting, according to the AP.

Murayama refused to confirm that, saying the ministry does not speculate on future population trends.

Japan has been troubled by a declining birth rate and rapidly aging population.

In 2004, Japanese women gave birth to an average of 1.29 children over their lifetimes, the lowest rate since the government began releasing the number in 1947 and one of the lowest in the world.

Policy-makers are expressing growing concerns about the long-term impact of the trend, which could leave Japan with a labor shortage, erode the country's tax base and strain the pension system as fewer taxpayers try to support an expanding elderly population.

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