Japan's health minister described women as "birth-giving machines" in a speech on the country's falling birthrate, but later retracted the remarks, news reports said Sunday.

"The number of women between the ages of 15 and 50 is fixed. The number of birth-giving machines (and) devices is fixed, so all we can ask is that they do their best per head," Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa said in a speech Saturday, the Asahi and Mainichi newspapers reported.

Speaking to Kyodo News agency later in the day, Yanagisawa apologized saying the language he used was "too uncivil."

Health Ministry officials could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Japan's birth rate was 1.26 babies per woman in her lifetime in 2005, a record low and far below the level needed to keep the country's population steady.

The government has been scrambling to implement measures to persuade couples to have more children.

A proposal adopted in June calls for increasing child care, promoting greater gender equality, and encouraging companies to be more flexible in allowing staff time to take care of family responsibilities.

But the high cost of raising children, as well as the lingering notion that women should quit their jobs after giving birth, has meant many opt to have few or no children.