12/22/2004, 00.00
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More holidays means more babies, government officials believe

Japan's government is expected to adopt a plan that includes increased paid leave to boost falling birth rate and improve family life.

Tokyo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Japanese government is increasingly concerned the country's   plummeting birth rate will, on the long run, spell social and economic disaster. To counter it, it plans to insist workers take longer leaves, this according to leaked information reported in the daily Yomiuri. The set of measures the Ministry is expected to take has been dubbed 'Angel Plan'.

Although the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has refused any comment, officials are worried about the effects of a rapidly aging population.

In the last financial year, the figure for the average number of children born to a Japanese woman during her lifetime fell to just 1.29, down from 1.32 in 2002 and 1.50 in 1994. This is well below the level of 2.08 needed to replenish the country's population.

"It is a very complicated problem," said Manabu Yoshida, a spokesman for the ministry, but "it is also a question of whether a man and a woman want to have children or not."

The Ministry's new five-year Angel Plan is an updated version of a similar scheme that had as its main tenet an increase in child-care facilities; this time however it is attempting something more fundamental. It wants companies to provide child-care leave for all staff, reduce by 10 per cent the number of working hours of those who put in 60 hours or more per week, and insist workers take at least 55 per cent of the paid leave they are entitled to every year.

While such improvements merely need an injection of funds, the requirement that employees use their paid holidays is likely to require a radical adjustment in the Japanese mindset.

For many social scientists, one aspect of the problem lies in the fact that men tend to spend a lot of time at work and little at home whilst women are encouraged to leave work after their first child. Another is strictly economic. "Having babies is easy," according to Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer at Hokkaido University, "but raising and educating them is very expensive . . . It's all about costs."

"The government," Mr Watanabe insists, "has to ease the [tax] burden on parents".

Health ministry figures show that 22.8 million of Japan's 127.1 million people are aged 65 or older. If that trend is not reversed, the country will lose 20 per cent of its current population by 2050.

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