updated 1/27/2007 8:45:36 AM ET 2007-01-27T13:45:36

Japan’s health minister called women of child-bearing age “birth-giving machines” on Saturday, saying each should do her best to help boost the nation’s rock-bottom birth rate, Kyodo news agency reported.

Japan’s aging and shrinking population has raised concerns about the country’s economic growth potential and the government’s ability to finance ballooning pension requirements.

“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. 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, although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines,” Kyodo quoted Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa as telling local party members.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in September, has pledged to take steps to make it easier for people to juggle work and child-rearing.

Japan’s fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime, fell to a record low of 1.26 in 2005. Estimates show the fertility rate probably increased slightly in 2006 but it is expected to resume its decline this year.

Japan’s population started shrinking in 2004, and already one-fifth of the population is 65 or older.

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