Continuing on its 11-year downward spiral, Japan exported 3.71 million automobiles in 1996, or roughly half the number it exported in 1985, an industry association reported Jan. 30.Exports of passenger cars, trucks and buses in 1996 dropped 2.1 percent from the previous year, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association said in its monthly report. The figure is down 45 percent from the peak figure of 6.73 million in 1985. Exports posted the lowest volume since 1976, and the ratio of exports in domestic auto production came to 35.9 percent, the lowest since 1973, according to the association. The yen’s depreciation and brisk overseas demand helped Japanese automakers to increase exports in the latter half of the year, but industry officials say the increase is only a short-term trend and will in the future be replaced by local production in other countries.Some officials say that despite the continuing drop in the value of the yen, exports will probably shrink in the January-March period. This is partly because of fears that expanding exports to the United States could refuel trade friction, and also because domestic plants will become busy supplying vehicles at home for the expected sales rush prior to the consumption tax hike scheduled in April.