(CNSNews.com) - Despite policies aimed at reversing the trend, Japan's government reports a continuing decline in the number of children born, and for the first time in 60 years, the world's second-largest economy could record a population drop this year.
The implications are enormous for a country where more than 70 percent of welfare spending already goes toward age-related benefits.
The proportion of people over 65 years of age is more than 20 percent of the total population and projected to exceed 35 percent by 2050. At the same time, the pool of working-age Japanese continues to diminish.
Health ministry figures released this week show that more people died than were born in Japan during the first six months of 2005, resulting in a net population fall of more than 30,000.
Because a flu epidemic was blamed in part for a high number of deaths during the January-March period, the second half of the year could see a balancing out. But even so, the pattern is one that has been evident for years.
"A recovery trend is usually seen in the latter half of the year," the Japan Times quoted a health ministry official as saying. "But we cannot rule out the possibility that the overall population may shrink this year, depending on the circumstances."
Three years ago, Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimated that the population would peak at 127.7 million in 2006 and then begin a steady decline, reaching 100 million by 2050.
So far, however, the figures for the first half of this year suggest that the annual decline has already begun, two years earlier than the institute predicted.
The population fall has been attributed to one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, as well as an antipathy towards immigration.
Japan's total fertility rate (TFR) -- the average number of babies born to women during the reproductive years of 15-44 -- reached an all-time low of 1.29 late last year, one of the lowest in the world and far below the generational replacement level, which demographers put at 2.1.
Japanese social trends are blamed for the low rate. The vast majority of women of child-bearing age are employed outside the home, and they marry late. Having children is regarded as a career-killing move, researchers say, with child-rearing looked down upon by society.
For the past decade, governments have tried to counter the population decline, substantially increasing child support and offering such policies as the "angel plan" to improve daycare and enable mothers to continue working.
Ahead of next month's general election, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is offering to increase payments to families with children and to step up funding for childcare.
Elsewhere in Asia, the situation is little better, if not worse.
South Korea's National Statistics Office (NSO) released figures this week showing that its TFR dropped in 2004 to 1.16, compared to 1.19 the pervious year.
The figure has been dropping consistently from 3.02 in 1977. By 1990, it had dropped to 1.59, and by 2002 to 1.17, an all-time low until this week's figures were released.
The number of newborns in Korea has also been steadily declining, from about 557,000 a year in 2001 to 476,000 last year -- the lowest figure since statistics began to be recorded in 1970 (when the annual number of births was about one million).
The NSO predicted that Korea's population would reach just fewer than 50 million in 2020 before beginning to shrink.
"It is high time the country declared a national emergency against the time bomb of population decrease," Seoul's Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial Wednesday.
In Taiwan, another country where the TFR has been dropping and is now about 1.22, the government several years ago launched a publicity campaign declaring that "three children are not too many." A decade earlier, the authorities had urged Taiwanese families not to have more than two babies each.
China's attempts to curb population growth center around a notorious birth-limitation policy introduced 25 years ago restricting most couples to having only one child. The U.S. government says the policy is enforced through forced abortions and forced sterilization.
One of the spin-offs of China's coercive population control has been an increasingly skewed ratio of boys to girls.
A preference for boy babies because of economic and traditional factors means that for couples only permitted one child, girl babies are frequently aborted.
Despite announcements last year that the government would clamp down on sex-selective abortions, the ratio in China is now nearly 120 boys (119.86) to every 100 girls, compared to the international norm of 103-107 boys for every 100 girls.
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