TOKYO - Japan said Friday it had surpassed Italy as the world's most elderly nation, fueling concerns over the effects of a rapidly aging population on the world's second-largest economy.
People aged 65 or older accounted for 21 percent of Japan's population in 2005, the Ministry of International Affairs and Communication said in a preliminary report. Italy's national statistics office reported that 19.5 percent of Italians were 65 or older last year.
The ratio of people under 15 also hit the world's lowest level at 13.6 percent, dipping below Bulgaria's 13.8 percent, according to Japan's report, based on a nationwide census taken last year.
"This shows a strong trend toward fewer children," said Kuniko Inoguchi, the government minister tasked with coming up with countermeasures. "We're determined to do our utmost to deal with the problem."
A plunging birth rate and an expanding elderly population pose serious concerns for Japan as it struggles to tackle a labor shortage and eroding tax base.
Japan's population dropped in 2005 for the first time on record, shocking officials and spurring a spate of measures to encourage women to have more babies. The government began a five-year project to build more daycare centers, while encouraging men to take paternity leave. Towns and villages have also launched matchmaking services to get more people to marry.
But the country's birthrate in 2005 stood at a record low of 1.25 babies per woman, far below the 2.1 rate needed to keep the population steady.
Japan's reluctance to open its borders to immigrants and refugees despite an urgent need for new workers to replace its aging work force has also compounded the problem. Foreign residents accounted for only about 1.2 percent of Japan's population at the end of 2005, and a government panel may propose limiting the ratio of foreigners to 3 percent of the country's population.
Friday's report said the elderly accounted for almost 27 million of Japan's total population of nearly 128 million, up about 22 percent from the previous census in 2000. The proportion of people under 15 fell 5.8 percent to about 17 million.
The survey also said the ratio of unmarried people went up in all age groups between 20 and 64.
The government expects roughly one in four Japanese may be aged 65 or older by 2015, and about one in three in 2050.