Japan's Health Minister Draws Criticism

The Associated Press
Sunday, January 28, 2007; 8:50 AM

TOKYO -- Japan's health minister described women as "birth-giving machines" in a speech on the falling birthrate, drawing criticism despite an immediate apology.

"The number of women between the ages of 15 and 50 is fixed. The number of birth-giving machines (and) devices is fixed, so all we can ask is that they do their best per head," Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa said in a speech Saturday, the Asahi and Mainichi newspapers reported.

Yanagisawa reportedly apologized even as he made the remarks, and later told Kyodo News agency the language he used was "too uncivil."

But Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama was unmoved by his expression of regret.

"It was extremely rude to women. Having children or not having children is naturally a matter that women and households are free (to decide themselves)," Hatoyama told reporters Sunday.

Japan's population of 127 million contracted for the first time on record in 2005, mostly because of a drop in the birthrate, raising the prospect of severe labor shortages and difficulties in paying health bills and pensions for large numbers of elderly.

The country's birthrate was 1.26 babies per woman in her lifetime in 2005, a record low, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said his government wants to develop measures to encourage more couples to have children.

A proposal adopted in June calls for increasing child care, promoting greater gender equality, and encouraging companies to be more flexible in allowing staff time to take care of family responsibilities.

But the high cost of raising children, as well as the lingering notion that women should quit their jobs after giving birth, has meant many opt to have few or no children.

© 2007 The Associated Press