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FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - Promises of cash for raising kids look like one reason why Japan's opposition Democratic Party is ahead in the run-up to an election next month, but many say it won't prompt them to have more babies.
That is a worry for Japan, which is aging far faster than any other developed country. More than a quarter of Japanese are set to be over 65 by 2015, a trend that could burden a dwindling workforce with unmanageable social security costs.
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has vowed to hand out 26,000 yen in subsidies a month per child and to make public high school free, hoping a lighter financial burden will encourage people to have larger families.
"Policies tackling the low birthrate and aging society will be a factor in how I vote," said Narumi Okoshi, 37, who works for Koriyama Sokuryo Sekkei, a surveying and design company in Fukushima, a largely rural prefecture north of Tokyo.
"I think child allowances will be positive for the party."
Struggling to catch up with the DPJ in opinion polls ahead of the August 30 election, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is planning measures to boost disposable household income, including making pre-school education free and providing a daycare place for every child who needs it, media say.
But Okoshi's colleagues were unenthusiastic when asked whether such incentives might push them to expand their families.
"Rather than money, what we need is jobs. Somewhere to work," said 35-year-old Minoru Suzuki, the father of a one-month old baby. "As things are, even if you have kids, you worry about what will happen to them when they grow up."
His anxiety is understandable. Unemployment hit 5.2 percent in May, the highest level since 2003, and is expected to rise further as Japan struggles to climb out of its worst recession since World War Two. Many of the jobs available to young people are too poorly paid to enable them to start families.
Lack of opportunity forces many young people to head for the big cities, further depressing local economies and turning small town high streets into silent rows of shuttered stores.
While the fertility rate, calculated as the average number of children a woman produces in her lifetime, has sunk to 1.09 in Tokyo, Fukushima has kept its rate at a slightly healthier 1.52. Fukushima's local governments have a long menu of programs to support those who have children or want them, ranging from help finding a partner to subsidized fertility treatment.
Some remote villages where more than half the population is over 65 offer generous cash gifts for parents of new babies. Families with children get a card entitling them to discounts on a variety of goods and services in the prefecture.
But local officials say they are not sure to what extent the higher birth rate is due to the steps, and note that Fukushima's population has fallen each year from a 1997 high of 2.14 million.
"First of all you need to find a partner," said Kiyokazu Nogawa of the family support division at Fukushima's prefectural government. "But some people don't have children after they get married. It's sometimes for economic reasons. That's why you need wide-ranging policies to stop the birth rate from falling."
In a bid to change the corporate culture of long working hours that many say is a factor in limiting family sizes, the prefecture offers incentives for local companies, like Koriyama Sokuryo Sekkei, that provide a family-friendly working environment. Such firms, for example, are given preference in bidding for public works contracts.
"My generation spent all their time at work," said managing director Kazuya Watanabe, when asked why he blazed a trail with efforts to make life easier for working parents.
"Childcare and household management were left entirely up to the wife. I am sorry about that now. I don't want the younger generation to have the same regrets as me."
But some say Fukushima's relatively high birth rate has little to do with such innovative policies and more to do with the rural tradition of living with the extended family.
"If I think of a reason, it's the environment," said Tomo Honda, 34, the youngest member of the Fukushima regional assembly, who himself lives with his parents as well as his wife and baby son in his constituency of Nihonmatsu.
"All the generations tend to live together in one big house. If my wife needs to go out to do something, the support is all there."
Editing by Sugita Katyal