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Japan’s exports in April fell 1.7 percent from the same month last year — the first fall since July 1995 — because of a decline in exports to economically battered parts of Asia.

But a sharper plunge in imports, due to the sluggish domestic economy, pushed the trade surplus up 52.6 percent from April 1997 to 1.23 trillion yen, according to preliminary figures on a customs clearance basis released Wednesday.

It was the 13th straight month in which the trade surplus has recorded a year-on-year increase, according to the Finance Ministry. The trend will remain for the time being, but the rate of increase is likely to slow down, a ministry official said. He was referring to a continued decrease in exports to Asia and an expected increase in imports following the implementation of Japan’s 16.65 trillion yen stimulus package.

Overall exports came to 4.35 trillion yen, with auto exports up 13.8 percent and those of semiconductors down 11.3 percent, both in value terms. Exports of auto parts decreased 15.8 percent, due to sluggish car production in Asian countries.

Overall imports dropped for the fourth consecutive month, plunging 13.8 percent to 3.12 trillion yen. The major factors behind the fall were the sluggish demand for lumber, resulting from falling housing starts here, and a drop in oil prices, according to the official. Imports of lumber fell 48.5 percent, while oil imports were down 36.4 percent.

On a regional basis, Japan’s trade surplus with Asia fell 27.7 percent, a year-on-year drop for the second consecutive month, to 377.5 billion yen.

Exports to Asia, including autos and auto parts, declined 18.1 percent, while imports to the region, including oil and wood products, slipped 14.5 percent. The decrease in imports in value terms was helped by weakening Asian currencies, the ministry official said.

Japan’s trade surplus with the United States increased for the 19th consecutive month, rising 29.2 percent to 586 billion yen. Exports to the U.S. grew 7.4 percent, while imports shrank 5.4 percent.

Exports of automobiles increased 22.3 percent, and iron and steel jumped 73.7 percent, a fact attributed mainly to the booming economy in the United States. Imports of office equipment decreased 24.8 percent because of cooling demand for personal computers.

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