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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 August 2006, 04:51 GMT 05:51 UK
Japan birth rate begins to rise
Young woman with child in Japan
Japan desperately needs more children
The number of births in Japan has increased for the first time in six years, the health ministry says.

Almost 550,000 births were registered in the six months from January to June, up by more than 11,600 from the same period last year.

An increase will be welcome news for Japan, which recorded its lowest ever birth rate in 2005, of just 1.25 babies per woman over a lifetime.

A rate of 2.1 is needed to keep the population level static.

The declining birthrate and rising elderly population pose serious concerns for Japan, and the government has recently introduced a spate of measures to encourage women to have more children.

Cautious optimism

Health ministry official Sayuri Narahara told the Associated Press that the recent increase in births might be due to economic growth and improvement in employment.

The ministry report also recorded an increase in the number of marriages in the first half of the year - up 10,936 from the same period in 2005.

Despite the good news, Ryuichi Kaneko, a researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, urged caution.

"We cannot conclude with just these results and say that birth rates have stopped falling," he told Kyodo news agency.

"We must follow the changes for at least one year and come up with conclusions."

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