updated 6/6/2007 4:43:23 PM ET 2007-06-06T20:43:23

Japan’s fertility rate rose last year for the first time in six years in 2006, while the number of suicides fell below the 30,000-case mark for the first time in four, the government said Wednesday.

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The fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime — stood at 1.32 babies per woman in 2006, up from a record low of 1.26 in 2005, the Health Ministry said on its Web site.

“The latest figure alone doesn’t indicate whether there is a turnaround in the country’s recent trend of falling number of births,” said Emi Sato of the vital statistic division with the Health Ministry.

She said more data on birth rates and other vital figures, including number of marriages, studied over the next few years, would be needed to spot a trend.

Ministry officials say the rise in the country’s fertility rate was due partly to Japan’s economic recovery from a decade-long slowdown, which encouraged more people to get married and have babies.

Japan’s fertility rate was 1.33 in 2001, 1.32 in 2002 and 1.29 in both 2003 and 2004 — the lowest figure since the government began releasing fertility rate data in 1947, according to the ministry.

Accounting for infant mortality and other factors, fewer than 2.1 babies per Japanese woman means negative population growth, with potentially dire consequences for the economy and the care of the elderly.

A declining birth rate — a figure that expresses the number of children born every year in a given population — threatens Japan with a potential a labor shortage, tax shortfalls and pension problems as fewer taxpayers support an aging population.

In an international comparison, the fertility rate in the United States was 2.6 in 2005 and 2.1 in France, both preliminary figures, the report said.

Government encouraging women
Last year, the number of births in Japan totaled 1,092,662, exceeding the number of deaths by just 8,174, the report showed. Marriages in Japan totaled 730,973 last year, up 16,708, while divorces totaled 257,484 people, down 4,433.

To encourage women to have more babies, the government is trying to build more daycare centers and encourage more men to take paternity leave. Some local governments offer special subsidies for couples to have more babies.

But many Japanese companies typically expect long hours from workers, and many women with careers feel they cannot meet the demands of both work and family and have to choose one or the other.

In Wednesday’s report, the Health Ministry also said there were 29,887 suicides last year, the first time the figure came in below the 30,000 mark in four years.

Wakana Niimura, a Health Ministry official, said the statistics don’t include cases in which it is difficult to determine whether the death is a suicide. The National Police Agency was to release more detailed suicide figures later this year.

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