The nation’s current account surplus rose for the second month in a row in May as the SARS epidemic trimmed overseas travel, surging 28.5 percent from a year earlier to 1.35 trillion yen, the Finance Ministry said Thursday.

The nation’s chronic deficit in the balance of services trade shrank to 175.8 billion yen in May — the lowest level in 17 years — from 402.5 billion yen a year earlier, reflecting a plunge in the number of Japanese traveling overseas, a ministry official said.

The number of travelers fell from 1,279,000 in May 2002 to 575,000 in the reporting month, a 55.1 percent decrease, as the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic swept across Asia, the official said.

The reduced deficit in the balance of services pushed up the balance of trade in goods and services — which also includes merchandise trade — by 100.1 percent to 649.1 billion yen, for the second straight month of increase.

The surplus in merchandise trade expanded 13.5 percent to 824.9 billion yen, up for the first time in three months.

Exports expanded 3.8 percent to 4.09 trillion yen, posting a 14th consecutive monthly increase. Though exports to the United States shrank 4.9 percent, those to the European Union surged by 12.2 percent and those to other parts of Asia by 6.8 percent.

Imports grew 1.6 percent to 3.26 trillion yen, for the ninth consecutive month of increase, mainly due to a rise in imports of crude oil.

Imports from the EU rose 5.9 percent and from Asia by 3.3 percent, but imports from the U.S. fell 7.9 percent.

The income account, covering income from Japanese investments in foreign securities and payments by foreign employers in Japan, registered a surplus of 754.8 billion yen, down from 823.5 billion yen the year before.

The official said the impact of the SARS epidemic will probably linger in June.

The current account balance — the broadest gauge of trade in goods and services — is the difference between a nation’s income from foreign sources and foreign obligations payable, excluding net capital investment.

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