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FILE PHOTO: People walk through a street in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, Japan, September 29, 2016. Picture taken September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's population, excluding resident foreigners, fell at the beginning of this year at its fastest pace since comparable figures were kept in 1968, highlighting the demographic challenge to economic growth.

As of Jan. 1, the number of Japanese people fell by a record 308,084 from a year earlier to 125,583,658, marking the eighth consecutive year of declines, government data showed Wednesday.

The number of births fell 2.9 percent from the previous year ago to 981,202, the lowest since comparable data became available in 1974.

People aged 65 or older accounted for 27.2 percent of the total population, the highest ratio on record, while the ratio of those aged 14 or younger fell to a record low of 12.7 percent, the data showed.

The number of registered foreign residents increased to 2,323,428, up 6.9 percent from a year earlier, according to the data.

Japan has long been reluctant to open up to immigration. Many Japanese pride themselves on what they see as their cultural and ethnic homogeneity, even as the population ages and its workforce shrinks.

But recently, the government has been increasing its efforts to attract students and high-skilled workers from overseas.

The overall population, which combines both Japanese and resident foreigners, fell 0.1 percent from a year ago to 127,907,086, the data showed.

(Reporting by Stanley White; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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