Most single Japanese women prefer not to marry and believe they can live happily alone for the rest of their life, a poll showed Friday, casting another shadow on the future of a country plagued by a falling birthrate.

About seven in ten single Japanese women surveyed by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper said they would rather stay unwed.

“The result reflects a recent trend among single women who no longer attach social stigma to choosing the single life,” the daily said.

Japan’s government is struggling to stem a tumbling birthrate and keep the population from shrinking.

The country’s fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime — fell to 1.29 in 2003, the lowest in the post-World War II period.

In Tokyo, the figure was a startling 0.9987.

Underscoring concerns that an aging population may dent future growth in the world’s second-largest economy, Japan said Monday that its population grew only 0.05 percent in the year to Oct. 1, its slowest increase in 54 years. Japan’s population totaled an estimated 127,687,000 as of Oct. 1, 2004.

A government think tank has forecast that Japan’s population will peak in 2006 and start to shrink the following year.

If present trends persist, the population would fall to about 100.6 million in 2050. Among oft-cited reasons for the falling birthrate are higher education levels, changing attitudes toward marriage and individual freedom, the high financial burden of child rearing, and the hardships involved for working women given long hours on the job and a persistent dearth of daycare.

The Yomiuri said 74 percent of surveyed men and women in their 20s said they believe women can be happy unmarried, while the rate dropped to 66 percent of those in their 30s and 58 percent in their 40s. “The result depicted a tendency among younger generations to remain single, leading observers to the conclusion that the number of people who marry late will further increase and will lower the birthrate,” the newspaper said.

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