The number of babies born in Japan fell to a record low of 840,832 in 2020, a year when the nation was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, government data showed Friday.

The figure marked the lowest level since the health ministry started taking such surveys in 1899. It was down 24,407 from the previous year when the number dipped below 900,000 for the first time.

The data revealed that the shrinking and rapid aging of the nation's population is accelerating amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato expressed a sense of crisis over the all-time low number and stressed the importance of removing obstacles for bearing and raising children in society.

"The declining number of children is a problem that can shake the basis of our society and economy. It should be tackled as a matter of the highest priority," the government's top spokesman said at a press conference.

The average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime declined 0.02 point from 2019 to 1.34, and the number of marriages decreased 73,517 to 525,490, the lowest in the post-World War II era, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Analysts predict the impact of the pandemic on child births will become more severe in 2021, with the number of newborns from January to March this year dropping 9.2 percent from a year earlier on a preliminary basis.

Takuya Hoshino, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, predicts that the declining trend of births and marriages will continue for a while due to economic hardships and fewer opportunities for people to meet each other because of the pandemic.

"It is necessary to support people who want to have a child through measures such as creating a framework for employees to take childrearing leaves easier and enhancing fertility treatment assistance," Hoshino said.

For the whole of 2021, the number may fall to the 700,000 level, 10 years earlier than the government had projected.

The number of births has been on a downward trend since 1973, the peak for the second-generation baby boomers in Japan at about 2.09 million.

By age of mothers, the number was the highest among women between 30 and 34 at 303,434, with the average age of bearing a first child standing at 30.7 years old.

The number of births fell among all age groups except those aged 45 and older, as the figure rose 27 among that group in 2020 from the previous year.

By prefecture, Okinawa logged the highest rate in terms of the average number of children per woman in her lifetime at 1.86, followed by Shimane at 1.69 and Miyazaki at 1.68.

Tokyo registered the lowest rate at 1.13, followed by Hokkaido and Miyagi at 1.21.

The average age of first marriages stood at 31.0 for men and 29.4 for women.

The number of divorces came to 193,251, down 15,245 from the previous year, according to the data.