Japan's population drop this year

Japan's population dropped this year for the first time on record, the government said Thursday, signaling a demographic turnaround for one of the world's fastest-aging societies. The Health Ministry's annual survey showed deaths outnumbered births this year by 10,000, the first time that had happened since such data were first compiled in 1899, ministry official Yukiko Yamaguchi said.

The announcement marked an acceleration of earlier projections that forecast Japan's population of 127.7 million would start declining as early as 2006 and would likely fall by 27 million people to 100.7 million by 2050.

The crowded nation's declining birthrate, 1.29 children per Japanese woman in 2004, also a record low, is at the root of the population turnaround. Later marriage ages, cramped housing, lack of affordable daycare and high education costs are cited as reasons for women having fewer children.

While fewer people could mean a roomier Japan, the shrinking population could threaten the country with labor shortages, tax shortfalls and an overburdened pension system as the number of taxpaying workers shrinks in comparison to the number of retirees. The report estimated total births in 2005 at 1,067,000, and estimated deaths at 1,077,000. In 2004, 1,110,721 babies were born, while 1,028,602 Japanese died. The news triggered a chorus of calls to boost support for families and children, as well as better provide for the elderly.

"We will need to continue reform of our social security system to enhance stability and to come up with measures to support coming generations," said Health Minister Jiro Kawasaki. It was unclear, however, how far the government would be willing to go. Conservatives eager to preserve what's left of Japan's "man at work, woman in the home" family model have been loathe to vastly expand the day-care system, for instance, for fear of encouraging more women to join the work force.

Another obvious possibility, loosening Japan's tight immigration laws to allow more foreigners to come here to work, has been blocked by a widespread distrust of outsiders and fear that foreigners would disrupt the country's social order.

Other traditional postwar structures have been difficult to tear down. Corporate demands for absolute loyalty and long hours from employees, for instance, make it extremely difficult for women to have both a family and a career, and they are increasingly choosing work over children.

Japan's carefree 20-somethings have also taken an increasingly dim view of marriage, often equating it with a lack of freedom. Since childbearing outside of wedlock is almost unheard of in Japan, later marriages have helped reduce fertility. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said a government panel was scheduled to come out with recommended policies next June.

"We consider measures against the declining birthrate as very important," he said. "We have expanded child-support allowances in the recent budget, and we hope to further expand other benefits to counter the declining birthrate."

Statistics show, however, that the emerging Japan will be one comprised increasingly of elderly. A government report earlier this year said nearly one in five Japanese were aged 65 or older in 2004. That figure could balloon to one in four in the next decade. I.L.

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