Japan’s fertility rate — the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime — fell to an all-time low of 1.25 in 2005, the health ministry said on Thursday, the latest sign of the threat to the world’s second-biggest economy from an aging, shrinking population.

Japan’s population declined last year for the first time since 1945. Experts had long predicted the shift, but it came two years earlier than forecast.

"It’s an extremely tough figure," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters, adding the need to cope with the problem.
"It will become one of the most important items on the policy agenda."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, a front-running candidate in the race to succeed Koizumi when he steps down in September, highlighted the consequences of the low birth rate.

"The trend toward having fewer children will have grave impact on the economy and society as it slows economic growth, increases the burden for social security and taxes, and reduces the vitality of regional society," he told a news conference.

Japan’s fertility rate slipped to 1.2888 in 2004. Demographers say a rate of 2.1 is needed to keep a population from declining.

Policy makers who once shied away from proposals to boost the birth rate for fear of echoing wartime nationalist propaganda have become more outspoken in recent years about the search for solutions.

"At the same time that we come up with appropriate support to enable people to raise children and work, I think it is also important to make people aware of the value of families and the of the joys of having children," Abe said.

With its falling birth rate, Japan is hardly alone among advanced countries. South Korea’s fertility rate fell to a record low of 1.08 in 2005, well below the global average of 2.6 children and the average in developed countries of 1.6.

Japan’s slumping birth rate has been attributed to long working hours for both men and women, the high cost of putting children through a highly competitive school system, and barriers to women advancing in the workplace while raising kids.
Japanese women tend to quit work after giving birth and only return to their jobs — often on a part-time basis — when their children start school.

The latest drop in the fertility rate, which first fell below 2.00 in 1975, will likely put pressure on the government to review its social welfare policies including pensions and medical care, since officials had assumed the fertility rate would bottom out at 1.31 and then recover, Kyodo news agency said.

Immigration could be one way to deal with the shrinking population, but many Japanese worry that an influx of foreigners would lead to higher crime rates and other social ills.

The head of a Justice Ministry panel recommended earlier this week that the country limit the proportion of foreigners to 3 percent of the population, compared with 1.2 percent now.

European fertility rates

Global fertility rates

Map Key
Color Fertility rate Long-term impact
Red less than 2 declining population
Yellow about 2 stable population
Green 3 to 4 growing population
Blue 4 or more rapidly growing population
Gray data not available