(CNSNews.com) - For the first time on record, Japan's population has started to decline -- a troubling demographic low point long expected but reached two years earlier than predicted.
Figures released by the government, based on preliminary data up to October, show that the number of deaths exceeded births in 2005 for the first time since officials started keeping records in 1899.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said 10,000 more Japanese died than were born.
Three years ago, a Japanese population institute estimated that the country's population would peak at 127.7 million in 2006 and then begin a steady decline from 2007, dropping to 100 million by 2050.
Already, more than 20 percent of Japan's population is over 65 years of age, even as the labor force dwindles.
"If the number of children keeps decreasing, economic problems will result, such as a reduction in the labor force and a slowdown in spending," the Yomiuri Shimbun daily commented on Friday. "The sustainability of the social security system will be at risk, too."
Population decline is a looming problem in a number of countries in Asia, Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union.
Total fertility rate (TFR) is the average number of babies born to women during the reproductive years of 15-44. The generational replacement rate -- the level deemed necessary for maintaining a stable population -- is 2.1.
Japan's TFR is one of the lowest, at 1.29.
According to 2005 estimates published in the CIA World Factbook, other countries that are even lower include South Korea (1.26), Ukraine (1.16) and -- at the bottom of the list -- Hong Kong (0.93).
At the other end of the scale are African and Islamic countries. Niger tops the list with an average of 7.55 babies per woman of childbearing age.
Japanese officials attributed the population figures to a flu epidemic that resulted in an increase in deaths among the elderly, as well as a dropping number of people getting married and starting families.
The rate of marriages per 1,000 people has fallen from more than 10 couples in the early 1970s to an estimated 5.7 couples this year, Health Minister Jiro Kawasaki told a press conference Thursday.
For more than a decade, Japanese governments have stepped up efforts to encourage couples to have more children, including improving child-support programs.
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