Japan deaths at record high as population shrinks

TOKYO, Jan 1 (Reuters) - Japan was expected to chalk up a record-high number of deaths in 2008, a government report showed on Thursday, underlining the unprecedented pace at which the ageing country's population is shrinking.

The health ministry report, based on preliminary figures of births and deaths registered at Japanese municipal offices, estimated there were 51,000 more deaths than births in 2008.

The number of deaths rose an estimated 35,000 to 1,143,000, the highest since data started to be compiled in 1947, the report said.

The number of babies born in 2008 was likely to have risen by 2,000 from a year earlier to 1,092,000 -- 2008 was a leap year with an extra day in February -- the report showed.

"We are apparently seeing the arrival of a society with a shrinking population," Kyodo News Agency quoted the health ministry as saying.

The first time Japan saw more deaths than births was in 2005. This was reversed in 2006, but deaths overwhelmed births again in 2007 and 2008.

"The margin of (population) decrease is expected to widen due to the falling birthrate and the ageing population," Kyodo quoted the ministry as saying.

Although the number of babies born in Japan increased for the first time since 2006, the country's birth rate remains among the lowest in the developed world.

It also showed that Japan's fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime, stood at 1.34 in 2007, far from an estimated 2.07 needed to keep a population from falling. The rate for 2008 was not available.

Ageing Japan, with a population of 127.7 million, faces serious economic consequences as its population falls.

Its low birth rate threatens to squeeze the economy by shrinking the labour force, which could weigh on its GDP, and leave fewer workers to support a growing number of pensioners.

Japan expects more than a quarter of its citizens to be aged over 65 by 2015 and its population is set to shrink by a third in 50 years if current trends continue. (Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Bill Tarrant)