Japan has outpaced Italy as the world's oldest country, with the elderly population hitting a new high and fewer young people choosing to start families, according to census figures released on Friday.
Japan has been racing to find ways to motivate people to have more children amid fears of a future demographic crisis as a smaller working population supports a mass of pensioners.
Japan's elderly population rose to 21 per cent, or 26.82 million, of the total population of 127.76 million in 2005, up 3.7 points from the previous census taken in 2000, the Internal Affairs Ministry said.
The rate topped the one in Italy, where the elderly form 20 per cent of the population. The third oldest country was Germany, where the elderly defined as people aged 65 or older accounted for 18.8 per cent, it said.
"The population is dwindling across the entire nation," the ministry said in a report accompanying the figures.
"Compared with the level in 2000, the aged population rate is rising in all prefectures with society greying in the entire nation," it said.
The findings coincided with the start of a two-day meeting in Tokyo of Asian ministers tasked with improving gender equality seen as a critical issue in encouraging young women to have children.
"We all know that putting in place a gender policy is not enough what truly counts is concrete action," said Kuniko Inoguchi, Japan's first minister to tackle the birthrate problem.
Japan "will continue to vigorously promote gender equality and undertake reforms to create a fair society in which both men and women can fully exercise their capacity to achieve self-fulfillment," she said.
The census said Japan's population aged 14 and younger last year hit a new low of 13.6 per cent, or 17.40 million, down one point from 2000. The same age bracket forms 14 per cent of the population in Italy and 14.3 per cent in Germany.
The number of young Japanese who were single shot up rapidly.
Those who were unmarried accounted for 59.9 per cent of women aged 25-29, up 5.9 points from 2000, and 32.6 per cent of women between ages 30 and 34, up six points, the census said.
Some 47.7 per cent of Japanese men aged 30-34 were unmarried, up 4.8 points.
Grappling to address the falling population, the Japanese Government has called for more financial incentives and support for working mothers to help them juggle their family and professional lives.
This month, Japan also tightened laws against gender discrimination amid complaints by many women that their jobs disappear once they go on maternity leave.
Similar problems have emerged in neighbouring South Korea, where the government has also stepped up efforts to make bringing up children more affordable and encourage women to stay in the labour force.
"As the issues of low birthrate and the aging society emerge in (South) Korea, the importance of gender equality is being emphasized as an essential part of national development," said Jang Ha-jin, South Korea's minister for gender equality.
Source: China Daily