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The nation’s surplus in merchandise trade in 1998 soared 40.1 percent from a year earlier to a record 13.98 trillion yen, the Finance Ministry said in a preliminary report released Monday.

The customs-cleared trade surplus has risen for two straight years.

Exports slipped 0.6 percent to 50.645 trillion yen, down for the first time in five years. Exports of automobiles rose 9.6 percent and ships 14.2 percent. Imports fell 10.5 percent to 36.66 trillion yen, also the first drop in five years. Crude oil imports plunged 30.6 percent in value because the unit price fell 27 percent from the previous year. Wood products tumbled 41.4 percent due to shrinking housing construction in Japan.

The December trade surplus alone rose 14.4 percent to 1.41 trillion yen, after a 15.9 yen percent drop the previous month. The pace of surplus growth will probably slow over time, a senior ministry official reckoned. Contributing factors include the increasing relocation of production facilities abroad, slipping exports to recession-hit Asia and the government’s pump-priming measures, which will help boost domestic demand, the official claimed.

The yen averaged 131.42 to the dollar in 1998, down 8.4 percent from the previous year. A weak yen lowers the price of Japanese products overseas.

Japan’s surplus with the United States last year jumped 33.4 percent to 6.697 trillion yen, the second consecutive yearly increase. 1998 exports to the United States were up 9.2 percent to 15.47 trillion yen, aided by 91.2 percent growth in the value of politically sensitive iron and steel exports — up 166.6 percent in volume — and a 17.7 percent climb in auto shipments.

But iron and steel exports to the U.S. fell last month by 20.8 percent in value — the first decline in 33 months — and 14.9 percent in amount, the first decrease in 1998.

The trade surplus with other parts of Asia tumbled 36 percent to 3.98 trillion yen, the first decrease in two years. Exports declined 17.9 percent to 17.56 trillion yen, the first drop in 12 years. Imports fell 10.4 percent to 13.58 trillion yen, the first decrease in five years.

The trade surplus with the 15-member European Union surged 68.1 percent to 4.203 trillion yen, marking the second consecutive yearly increase.

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