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Japan's population shrinks at record rate, losing 276,000 people

Working-age labor force makes up smallest share ever

Deaths have outpaced births in Japan for 13 straight years. (Photo by Wataru Ito)

TOKYO -- Japan's population suffered its largest one-year drop last year, government estimates released Tuesday show, with the country's working-age labor force falling to a new low.

The population stood at about 126.17 million people on October 2019, down 0.22% from a year earlier. The change marks the biggest percentage contraction since comparable records started being kept in 1950.

The population count, which includes foreigners, has dropped for nine straight years. The decrease of 276,000 people last year amounts to a loss of a mid-sized city.

The rapidly graying population risks overburdening the country's social insurance system. Those 65 and older number 35.89 million, accounting for a record 28.4% of the population.

At the same time, the share of the population in the traditional prime working years of 15 to 64 has slipped to an all-time low of 59.5%, or 75.07 million people as of October.

A shrinking labor force contributes to negative economic growth. Japan's real gross domestic product could take a 25% hit in the next four decades as the nation grapples with a rapidly shrinking population, the International Monetary Fund  wrote in a February report. Current demographic trends will also undermine the tax base needed to sustain government services for the elderly, such as pensions and medical care.

To avoid such an outcome, the government has urged the business community to accommodate workers as old as 70. Policymakers have also opened doors wider for foreign workers. 

For foreign nationals, the number arrivals to Japan in the year to October exceeded the number of departures by 209,000, marking the seventh straight year of growth.

Deaths in the overall population outpaced births for the 13th consecutive year. Only 896,000 babies were born, a decrease of 48,000 births. Meanwhile, 1.38 million people died, up 12,000 individuals.

Every April, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications publishes the annual population estimate as of Oct. 1, based on the census and monthly population movements. This estimate reflects conditions prior to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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