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The nation’s surplus in merchandise trade in the first half of this year soared 66 percent from a year earlier to 6.57 trillion yen, mainly because of a drop in imports caused by the prolonged economic slump, the Finance Ministry said Wednesday.

The June trade surplus alone expanded 27 percent from the same month last year to 1.22 trillion yen, but the rate of increase is the lowest of the past 15 months of consecutive year-on-year rises, as preliminary figures on a customs clearance basis indicate.

The pace of increase in the trade surplus is expected to slow as economic stimulus measures being taken rev up domestic demand, a ministry official reckoned.

Exports in the January-June period rose 2.2 percent year-on-year for the eighth consecutive half-year period to 25.27 trillion yen. Imports fell 9.9 percent to 18.7 trillion yen, marking the first decrease in eight half-year periods.

The resulting 6.57 trillion yen surplus represented an increase for the third consecutive period, beginning in the first half of 1997.

Among exports, automobiles increased 14.3 percent in value terms, due to growing demand in the United States and European Union, the official said. Exports of videocassette recorders soared 20.6 percent.

Auto parts decreased 11 percent, mainly due to the shrinking car production in the troubled Asian economies.

On a regional basis, Japan’s trade surplus with the U.S. increased for the fourth straight semiannual period, rising 37.7 percent to 3.07 trillion yen. Exports to the booming U.S. grew 11 percent,and imports from the country shrank 1.8 percent.

The trade surplus with Asia fell 26.8 percent, the first decrease in three half-year periods, to 2.08 trillion yen. Exports to Asia went down 15 percent, while imports from the region, including crude oil and wood products, slipped 10.6 percent.

The nation’s trade surplus with the EU soared 89.7 percent to 2.02 trillion yen. Exports of visual equipment, particularly VCRs, rose 41.1 percent. Imports of alcohol from Europe increased 53.3 percent due to the growing popularity of red wine.

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