TOKYO (WASHINGTON POST) - The annual number of births in the country dipped below one million during 2016 for the first time since records became available, an estimate by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry shows.
The number stands at 981,000, the lowest since 1899, according to the demographic statistic estimate released on Thursday (Dec 22).
The ministry's analysis showed the number of women in the age group of those giving birth is decreasing. The government is expected to urgently take further measures to address the declining birthrate.
The annual estimate shows that the number of people who died stands at 1.296 million, which is 6,000 more than last year. The number of deaths is thus expected to exceed that of births for 10 consecutive years.
The gap, or the natural decrease in the population, is expected to hit a record high of 315,000.
The number of births has been declining since peaking at more than two million during the second baby boom from 1971 to 1974.
When the total fertility rate for 1989 hit a record low of 1.57, the situation was called the "1.57 shock" because the figure was even lower than in 1966 - a year in which giving birth was generally avoided in Japan due to a superstition. After that, measures to address the declining birthrate started being considered as important.
In September 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his administration would aim to achieve a birthrate of 1.8 children per woman.
Measures have been hammered out under this initiative, such as increasing the overall capacity of day care facilities to 500,000 by the end of fiscal 2017 and boosting support for households of single parents and those with many children.
But the declining birthrate has yet to be arrested.
Some observers say the declining birthrate will accelerate due to such factors as a decrease in the number of people in the age bracket of those having children and an increase in the rate of unmarried people.
According to a population estimate by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, the number of women aged 20 to 39 decreased more than 1.6 million in four years, from 15.84 million in 2010 to 14.23 million in 2014.
According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the percentage of people who have never been married as of age 50 sharply increased.
In 1990, the figure was 5.57 per cent for men and 4.33 per cent for women.
In 2010, the figure increased to 20.14 per cent for men and 10.61 per cent for women. An estimate shows the percentage could even reach 30 per cent for men and 20 per cent for women in 2035.
"A decrease in the number of births is a structural problem, and the trend is expected to continue further," said Ryuichi Kaneko, deputy director general of the institute.