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The nation’s surplus in merchandise trade in the April-September period fell 13.6 percent from a year earlier to 6.39 trillion yen, the first decrease in five fiscal half-year periods, the Finance Ministry said Monday.

Both exports and imports dropped in the period, but the pace of decline in exports exceeded that of imports, according to preliminary figures on a customs-cleared basis.

But the politically sensitive trade surplus with the United States soared 10.2 percent, marking the sixth consecutive half-year period of increase.

Overall, “The trend of a shrinking trade surplus will probably continue for the time being,” a ministry official said, citing the rising volume of imports and the unit price of crude oil staying on a high level.

The official also mentioned the yen’s appreciation against the dollar, which may reduce exports in the long run.

The price of crude oil averaged 12,309 yen per kiloliter in the first half of fiscal 1999, which began in April, up 8.4 percent from a year earlier. The yen averaged 118.18 to the dollar, up 16.3 percent.

Overall exports dropped 7.7 percent year-on-year to 23.91 trillion yen, down for the second consecutive fiscal half year.

Overall imports fell 5.3 percent to 17.52 trillion yen, marking the fourth fiscal-half decline in a row.

Exports of automobiles and office equipment shrank, while aircraft and coal imports were also down. Crude oil imports, on the other hand, increased 6.2 percent.

Japan ran a trade surplus of more than 1 trillion yen with each of the three major regions it trades with.

Exports to the U.S. lost 6.2 percent to 7.46 trillion yen. Contentious exports of iron and steel plunged 61.7 percent. Imports declined 18.5 percent to 3.69 trillion yen.

The trade surplus with the European Union dropped 21.3 percent to 1.73 trillion yen, the first year-on-year decrease in five fiscal half-year periods. Exports, including office equipment and cars, fell 13.1 percent, down for the first time in 10 half-year periods. Imports slipped 6 percent.

With the rest of Asia, Japan’s surplus shrank for the third fiscal half, running to 1.97 trillion yen, down 6.3 percent.

Exports of such products as optical instruments inched up 0.4 percent, the first increase in four halves, reflecting the improving economy in the region. Imports from Asia rose 2.5 percent.

In September alone, the overall trade surplus declined 9.7 percent to 1.39 trillion yen, a fall for the sixth consecutive half-year.

Global car exports lost 8.1 percent in value but gained 5.3 percent in volume to 492,000 units, the biggest rise since March 1993. To the U.S. alone, the volume jumped 31.1 percent and the value was up 2.2 percent.

The September surplus with the U.S. hit 765.9 billion yen, up 4.9 percent from a year earlier, rising year-on-year for the fifth month in a row.

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