Japan to fight dwindling birthrate

The Japanese government will consider shouldering all expenses for childbirth, a government official said Friday, as the country's declining birthrate continued to fuel concerns. "We will look into the issue of expense-free childbirth broadly," Kuniko Inoguchi, Minister of Measures for Declining Birthrate and Gender Equality, said at a press conference.

Public health insurance plans in Japan provide a mother with a 300,000 yen (US$2,620; Ђ2,170) lump-sum allowance per baby. The Health Ministry plans to submit legislation to increase the amount to 350,000 yen (US$3,057; Ђ2,532) in the upcoming Parliament session expected to start in late January, according to Ryuichi Miyata, an official of the ministry.

But critics say the cost of childbirth is greater than the allowance, making it difficult for some young couples to have children. Opposition parties have called for an even further increase in the allowance, or for the government to shoulder the entire cost.

According to research by the publishing company Recruit, the average cost of childbirth was 666,000 yen (US$5,817; Ђ4,819) in 2003. The company polled 1,600 mothers who gave birth to their first child, and the cost included medical expenses and baby clothes. Japan's birthrate declined to 1.29 babies per woman in both 2003 and 2004, its lowest rate since the government began releasing birth figures in 1947, according to the Health Ministry.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported in late December that the nation's birthrate is expected to drop further to 1.26 babies per woman in 2005. The government began a five-year project last year to build more day-care centers, and to encourage men to take paternity leave and companies to ensure equal opportunities for women. The drop in births, despite government efforts to encourage couples to have more children, reflects changing lifestyles for women in particular, with many single women foregoing or delaying marriage to pursue improving career opportunities. Japanese policy-makers are expressing growing concerns about the long-term impact that rapidly dwindling numbers of children will have on the world's second-largest economy, reports the AP. N.U.

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