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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 January 2007, 22:48 GMT
Japan women called child machines
A Japanese girl
Japanese children are fewer and further between
Japan's health minister has referred to women as "birth-giving machines" in a speech to a local political meeting.

Hakuo Yanagisawa called for women to do their best to bear children in order to counter Japan's plummeting birth rate and rapidly ageing population.

"Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head," he said.

He added: "Although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines."

Recent figures show that Japanese fertility fell to an average of just 1.26 children per woman in 2005.

Last year saw a slight rise for the first time in six years, but the country still faces a long-term trend that may see a 30% drop in the population in the next 50 years.

A rate of 2.1 is needed to maintain population levels.

Japan has the world's highest ratio of elderly to young people.

The trend raises serious concerns about the country's future economic growth and how it can fund its pensions.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to bring in policies that will tackle the falling birth rate.

His recent draft budget sought to increase support for child-care services.

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