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TOKYO (Reuters) - Having children is not a duty, but should be seen as fun, Japan's minister in charge of tackling the dwindling birth rate said on Friday, a day after Prime Minister Taro Aso said he had "done his duty" by raising two children.
Aso withdrew his comments, but Yuko Obuchi, the first cabinet minister to be pregnant in office, was quizzed about them after a news conference in Tokyo.
"It's absolutely not a question of national duty. It's a free decision," she told reporters.
Obuchi, the mother of a one-year-old boy, heads the government's campaign to solve one of its thorniest problems -- people's unwillingness to reproduce.
A government report issued last week estimated the number of people aged under 15 had fallen for the 28th consecutive year to 17.14 million, only 13.4 percent of the total population.
Combined with the growing number of elderly -- those aged over 65 make up 22.5 percent of the population -- the dearth of babies means Japan will face trouble paying off its vast debts and funding ballooning health care and pension needs.
"We tend to hear a lot of stories about how tough it is, but we have to get the message across that bringing up children is something that's full of fun and joy," Obuchi, 35, said.
Nine years ago, Obuchi won the parliamentary seat that had belonged to her father, former prime minister Keizo Obuchi, who died after suffering a stroke while in office. Last year she became the country's youngest post-war cabinet minister.
She says a more comprehensive plan is needed if Japan is to resolve an issue that has dogged it for decades. Tackling fundamental issues like lack of job security among young people will enable them to settle down and have families, she said.
Obuchi says she wants an extra 3 trillion yen ($30.18 billion) in funding to pay for services like free pre-school education and improved daycare services, which could be funded by adding 1 percent to consumption tax.
If current population trends continue, the workforce will shrink and domestic demand will fall, cutting potential economic growth by 0.5 percent by 2030, according to a report issued in February by the business lobby Keidanren.
Editing by Jeremy Laurence