The nation’s customs-cleared trade surplus for 1996 fell 32.4 percent from the previous year to 6.744 trillion yen, marking the fourth straight year of decline, the Finance Ministry said Jan. 23.Preliminary reports showed that exports rose 7.7 percent to 44.734 trillion yen, but imports grew more sharply, climbing 20.4 percent to 37.99 trillion yen during the year. The 1996 surplus was roughly half the level of 1992, when the nation posted a record 13.485 trillion yen surplus. The percentage of imported manufactured goods logged an all-time high of 59.4 percent.Ministry officials said they believe the trade surplus will remain on a downward trend, given the fact that the increase in exports is still being overshadowed by the growth in imports. There are growing indications, however, that the continuing fall of the yen against the dollar is helping Japanese firms to increase exports and could slow the drop in the surplus.Notable growth was seen in imports of office equipment and clothing and related accessories, which marked increases of 38.5 percent and 21.5 percent respectively. Oil imports rose 29.2 percent from the previous year in value due to a 30.4 percent increase in crude oil prices. Auto exports meanwhile rose by 10.7 percent in value terms and 1.5 percent in volume, a trend which ministry officials said was boosted by the fall of the yen against the U.S. dollar.The trade surplus with the United States declined for the second straight year, falling by 16.5 percent to 3.552 trillion yen. Exports to the U.S. rose for the first time in two years, recording a 7.5 percent increase to 12.179 trillion yen, while imports soared 21.9 percent to 8.626 trillion yen.Vis-a-vis the European Union, the surplus figure dropped for the fourth straight year, decreasing by 26.5 percent to 1.485 trillion yen. The nation’s trade surplus with Asia fell for the first time in nine years, logging a 15.7 percent decrease to 5.561 trillion yen.