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The nation’s trade surplus in April fell 12.6 percent from the year before to 1.07 trillion yen, as the fall in exports exceeded that of imports, the Finance Ministry said Monday.

It was the first drop in the surplus in two months, according to the ministry’s preliminary report on merchandise trade.

But the politically sensitive bilateral surplus with the United States inched up for the second consecutive monthly increase.

A ministry official stressed that the trend in the last six months has been a fall in the surplus’ rate of expansion. But the official refrained from forecasting figures for the coming months, saying, “We have to take a medium-
term view.”

Overall imports dropped 5.4 percent to 2.95 trillion yen, marking the 16th straight monthly decrease. It was mainly because the unit price of crude oil — accounting for 10 percent of the nation’s entire imports — fell 7.5 percent from a year earlier. Sluggish domestic demand also soured imports, the official said.

Overall exports declined 7.4 percent to 4.02 trillion yen for the seventh consecutive month of decrease. Automobile exports fell 11.4 percent, and office equipment such as computer parts fell 15.1 percent.

The merchandise trade balance is measured on a customs-cleared basis and is reported before adjustments for seasonal factors.

The yen averaged 119.62 to the dollar, up 9.7 percent from April 1998. A stronger yen generally hurts exporters by pushing up the price of Japanese products sold overseas.

On a regional basis, Japan’s trade surplus with the U.S. rose 2.1 percent to 596.5 billion yen. Exports fell 4 percent and imports fell 8.9 percent.

Iron and steel exports — the primary target of protectionists in the U.S. — fell 51.8 percent for the fifth straight monthly drop. The volume of exports, down 50.4 percent in April, has also decreased for five months.

On the other hand, car exports increased 6.3 percent.

Among imports from the U.S., airplanes jumped 126.6 percent because of three large planes, compared with two imported the year before.

Office equipment imports fell 22.4 percent and motors such as aircraft engines dropped 35.2 percent.

The trade surplus with other parts of Asia plunged 22.7 percent to 291.3 billion yen, with exports down 4.6 percent and imports up 1.2 percent.

Vessel exports to Asia fell 81.6 percent because no freighters were exported this time compared with four the year earlier. Imports of office equipment such as laptops gained 26.1 percent.

With the 15-member European Union, the trade surplus declined 4.7 percent to 356.6 billion yen. Exports fell 7.9 percent and imports dropped 10.6 percent.

While imports of meat, especially pork, doubled, aircraft imports nosedived 94.5 percent and alcohol imports plunged 41 percent.

Yasushi Okada, chief economist at Credit Suisse First Boston Securities (Japan) Ltd., predicted that the nation’s imports will grow further now that the economy has hit bottom.

“If the economy falls back into recession in autumn, imports will decrease and the trade surplus will expand. But I don’t expect the economy to turn down in autumn,” he said.

Okada said the detrimental impact that Japan’s financial sector problems has had on consumption is quickly easing. Wage earners’ propensity to consume is showing signs of picking up, he added.

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