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As Japanese Grow Older,  Worries About Shrinking Population Increase

On September 15, Japan honors its elderly with a national holiday called Respect For the Aged Day.

Kamata Hongo, 115, the world's oldest person, greets politicians visiting her to celebrate a milestone: the number of Japanese who have lived a century or more has reached an all-time high.

The news is a source of great pride to the Japanese, and the government's announcement of the record was carried by all the major news organizations.

Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi says that as of September 1, the number of centenarians reached 20,561, which is the first time the figure has surpassed 20,000.

Ms. Hongo, who lives on the southern island of Kyushu, has a healthy appetite and unusual sleeping habits. She sometimes sleeps for two days at a time, followed by two days of wakefulness.

Japan also boasts the world's oldest man, 114-year-old Yukichi Chuganji, a former silkworm breeder also from Southern Japan, who retired just three years ago. He says his vigor stems from healthy eating and an optimistic outlook.

Japan in fact has the world's longest overall life expectancy, 85 years for women and 78 years for men. Scientists say it is due to a diet traditionally rich in vegetables and low in fat. The longevity records are another source of national pride.

But coupled with a tumbling birth rate, the nation's longevity has raised concerns about how Japan will maintain its workforce and finance care for the elderly in the not-too-distant future.

Tatsuya Ishikawa is researcher at the Nissay Research Institute in Tokyo, who has studied the impact of an aging population on Japanese society.

He predicts that Japan's population will continue to age rapidly for about 20 years, and will also shrink in size over the next half century. He warns that as a result, the size of the working population will decrease.

According to United Nations statistics, senior citizens now comprise more than 24 percent of the Japanese population, and are expected to make up 42 percent by the middle of the century. Both figures are double the world-wide rate. The fertility rate has fallen to a record low for the nation, of 1.3 children per woman, which is also one of the lowest rates in the world. That is due to women marrying later, or not at all. Seen another way, the birth rate in Japan is just nine babies born for every thousand people, compared, for example, with 14 per thousand in the United States, 15 per thousand in China, and 21 per thousand globally.

The net effect is that while Japanese are living well past retirement age, fewer and fewer children are being born to take their place in the workforce.

Some forecasters say that in about 20 years, Japan will have one person over 65 for every two of working age, numbers that suggest it could become impossible to finance pensions for the elderly.

The government is trying a multifaceted approach to the population problem. It recently passed new legislation to create more child-care centers to induce more working women to have children, and to improve the medical insurance system for mothers and infants. It is urging large companies to offer more attractive child-care leave.

The government is also considering raising the normal retirement age beyond 60, as well as reducing handouts for the elderly. It is even examining ways to bring elderly people back into the workforce so they can support themselves. Some desperate local governments are hosting parties to bring singles together in hopes of raising the marriage and birth rates.

The economics of a smaller workforce are also prompting calls from some citizens groups and business organizations to allow more foreign workers into the country, to boost contributions to the nation's pension system. Currently, the number of foreign workers in Japan is less than two-tenths of one percent.

But the Japanese are notoriously intolerant of foreign races in their midst, and changing the public's mind on this point is not expected to be easy.

So Japan, one of the most densely-populated nations on earth, experiences two modern manifestations of the age-old population problem: it enjoys the distinction of having the world's longest-living people, and it is challenged by the complex and very up-to-date task of caring for its growing legions of elderly citizens.