Japan’s gaffe-prone deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, has been forced to retract remarks that appeared to blame women who do not have children for problems associated with the country’s low birth rate and ageing population. Aso, who doubles as finance minister, told a constituency meeting in Fukuoka, southwest Japan, at the weekend that older people were being unfairly singled out to explain the country’s demographic crisis. “There are lots of weird people who say the elderly are at fault, but that’s incorrect,” Japanese media quoted him as saying. “Rather, those who aren’t giving birth to children are the problem. “The ageing population, combined with the diminishing number of children, is the grave issue in the mid and long term.” Aso later withdrew the remarks after opposition MPs accused him of insensitivity towards couples who want to have children but are unable to do so. The 78-year-old claimed media had taken his words out of context and that he had simply attempted to highlight the threat the declining birth rate poses to Japan’s economic health. But he added: “I’d like to withdraw my comments and will be careful with my words in the days ahead.” Japan opens door to foreign workers – but will Japanese accept them? Aso was speaking after data showed Japan’s population fell by a record 448,000 people in 2018, with the number of births that year declining to 921,000, the lowest since records began more than a century ago. The trend has prompted warnings that spiralling health and welfare costs for older people, coupled with a shrinking workforce, will increase pressure on the world’s third-biggest economy in the decades to come. Those who aren’t giving birth to children are the problem Taro Aso Experts blame the low birth rate on several factors, including the high financial cost of bringing up children, the lack of childcare provision and notoriously long working hours. Aso, however, is one of several conservative politicians who have blamed couples, and in particular women, for the trend. In June 2018, Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party [LDP], described couples who decide not to have children as “selfish”, and cited the post-war baby boom as evidence that hardship needn’t be an obstacle to having bigger families. Two months earlier Kanji Kato, an LDP lawmaker, said women should have “at least three children” and warned those who preferred to remain single that they would become a burden on the state. He said he told single women that “if they don’t get married then they won’t be able to have children, and that they’ll end up in a care home paid for with the taxes of other people’s children”. Single-minded: forget marriage, South Koreans aren’t even dating In 2007 the then health minister, Hakuo Yanagisawa, described women as “birth-giving machines” and said it was their public duty to increase the birth rate. Aso’s praise, in the same recent speech, for Japan’s impressive life expectancy – which has increased by about 30 years since he was born in the 1940s – contrasted with comments he made in 2013, when he said older people should be allowed to “hurry up and die ” to relieve pressure on the state.