The number of babies born in Japan fell to a record low of 811,604 in 2021, declining faster than the government anticipated, according to data released Friday.

The decline of 29,231 from the previous year means the country's annual newborns have already fallen to the level that the government's 2017 study forecast for 2027.

According to the health ministry, which began collecting such data in 1899, the average number of children a woman is estimated to bear in her lifetime declined by 0.03 point from 2020 to 1.30, while the number of marriages decreased by 24,391 to 501,116, the fewest in the postwar era.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare attributed the decline in newborns to a fall in women in their 20s giving birth, though it is not clear whether factors such as increasing economic insecurity or uncertainty about the future brought on by the coronavirus pandemic caused the decline.

Speaking at a press conference Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the falling birth rate "could shake the foundations of our society and economy" and pledged to tackle the issue as the government's top priority.

"We will create a reassuring social environment for people to give birth and raise children" by ramping up support for fertility treatment and childcare services while making it easier for men to take childcare leave, he said.

Births have been on a downward trend since peaking at 2.09 million in 1973 in the middle of the country's second baby boom.

Women between 30 and 34 accounted for 292,435 births, the largest number among the age brackets in the survey. The average age for bearing a first child rose 0.2 year to 30.9, the oldest on record.

Women between 40 and 44 were the only age group whose births increased from last year at 48,516, up 617, suggesting more women in the country are choosing to become mothers later in life.

By prefecture, Okinawa posted the highest birth rate, with each woman estimated to have 1.80 babies in her lifetime, followed by Kagoshima and Miyazaki, both in southwestern Japan, at 1.65 and 1.64, respectively.

Tokyo logged the lowest rate at 1.08, followed by Miyagi at 1.15 and Hokkaido at 1.20.

The number of deaths during the year increased to 1.44 million, the highest in the postwar era, leading to a natural decline in the population of 628,205. COVID-related deaths totaled 16,756.

As for the leading causes of death, cancer was the most common at 26.5 percent, followed by heart disease at 14.9 percent.

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