Japan's population fell for the first time this year, the government said yesterday, calling it a "turning point" that will force the world's second-largest economy to adapt to a rapidly aging society.
With its youth increasingly finding children a burden to their careers and lifestyles, Japan joins Germany and Italy among a club of nations whose populations have started to shrink.
Deaths are likely to outnumber births by about 10,000 this year, the first decline since 1899 when Japan began compiling the data, health ministry figures showed.
"Our country is now standing at a major turning point in terms of population," Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Jiro Kawasaki told a news conference.
"We must take counter-measures against the falling birthrate along with measures to support and foster our future generations," Kawasaki said.
But Koki Chuma, state minister for administrative reform, said that while the faster-than-expected population drop was "a considerable shock" it was "not necessarily bad."
"My opinion is that 120 million people do not necessarily have to be in this tiny island country," he said.
The Japanese population was 127,687,000 as of October last year. The health ministry said births were set to fall by 44,000 to 1,067,000 this year, with deaths going up 48,000 to 1,077,000 year-on-year.
"Although there may be some temporary gains in population in the future, it cannot be helped to foresee a further decline in the mid and long run," a ministry official said.
The declining population fuels fears for the pension system as a smaller workforce supports a mass of pensioners.
Japanese companies have already been looking for ways to keep more older people in the workforce as mentors to help maintain the nation's economic edge.
Historically, homogeneous Japan has rejected wide-scale immigration, accepting only foreign workers with particular skills.
The latest study shows that the population is dropping at a faster pace than thought. Just last week the Cabinet Office forecast that the population would start shrinking next year -- an announcement that revised a previous estimate that the decline would begin the following year.
The Cabinet Office predicted that the population will halve to 60 million people by 2100.
The average number of children a Japanese woman has in her lifetime has been steadily decreasing and marked a new record low of 1.2886 last year.
A government panel earlier this year proposed incentives for companies to promote temporary workers to the status of full employees and called for the normal retirement age to be raised to 65 from 60.
It also proposed that Japan accept more foreigners and bring more foreign exchange students into the workforce, besides promoting immigration by workers of Japanese ancestry.
But this month, the government changed course and announced tighter screening of potential immigrants of Japanese origin, after a Peruvian claiming Japanese ancestry allegedly murdered a seven-year-old girl.