JAPAN'S health minister has provoked a storm of protest after he described women as "birth-giving machines" in a speech he gave on the country's falling birthrate.
Hakuo Yanagisawa made the remarks in a speech he gave on Saturday as the government announced a council to draw up new strategies to tackle the country's shrinking population.
Japan's population of 127 million fell for the first time on record in 2005, mostly because of a drop in births.
The decline has raised the prospect of severe labour shortages in the future, coupled with difficulties in paying health bills and pensions for large numbers of elderly.
In the speech, Mr Yanagisawa, the health, labour and welfare minister, said: "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."
He reportedly apologised even as he made the remarks and later further backtracked, admitting that the language he had used was "too uncivil". However the Democratic Party leader, Yukio Hatoyama, was unmoved by his expression of regret.
"It was extremely rude to women," he said.
"Having children or not having children is naturally a matter that women and households are free [to decide themselves]," Mr Hatoyama said.
The Japanese birthrate was 1.26 babies per woman in her lifetime in 2005, a record low figure.
Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, 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 give up their jobs after giving birth - has meant many opt to have fewer or no children.
The strategy council, to be chaired by the chief cabinet secretary, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, will hold its first meeting early next month.
It plans to focus on issues such as employment patterns and resources available to families with children, the Asahi and the Nikkei newspapers reported yesterday.
The council will be comprised of bureaucrats and experts in various fields and is expected to present an interim report to the government in mid-June, and a basic strategy plan later in the year.
Cabinet office officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.