The number of children in Japan hits new low for 29th straight year

TOKYO (AP) — Japan had fewer youngsters celebrating Children's Day for the 29th straight year Wednesday, highlighting concerns that the country may face difficulty finding enough workers and taxpayers to support a rapidly aging population.

The number of children under age 15 as of April has fallen to 16.9 million, down 190,000 from a year earlier, according to an annual report published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to mark the national holiday. The proportion of children in Japan has also kept declining for 36 straight years to about 13 percent of the country's population of 127 million.

The elderly population is rapidly swelling. The number of those aged 65 or older has grown to 23 percent of Japan's population from about 5 percent 60 years ago and is still on the rise. Children accounted for more than one-third of the national population in 1950.

The demographic trend, fueled by low birthrates and longer life expectancies, adds to concerns over Japan's labor shortage, declining tax income and overburdened public pension system.

Japan has the lowest percentage of children among 27 countries with populations of more than 40 million, trailing Germany at 13.6 percent and Italy's 14 percent. Ethiopia had the highest proportion of youth population at 45 percent, the ministry report said.

Government efforts to buoy the birthrate have had little success. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's government recently launched a payout program for families with children through junior high school to encourage women to have more babies and help consumer spending.

Tokyo has also stepped up programs that encourage the elderly to stay active and working, and introduced a new health insurance system last year to deal with ballooning medical costs for people 75 or older.

The percentage of children is projected to fall below 11 percent in a dozen years, with the proportion of elderly likely rising to almost 30 percent, according to government estimates.

Japan's overall population recorded its sharpest decline last year, falling by 183,000 people from a year earlier.

Eds: CORRECTS day in graf 1; ADDS photo link.