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Japan’s trade surplus for the first half of fiscal 2003 slipped 0.8 percent from the same period last year, marking its first fall in two years.

Exports to China and other parts of Asia recorded robust growth despite the SARS outbreak, but it was slightly overwhelmed by a rise in petroleum imports, the Finance Ministry said Thursday.

Demand for crude oil, liquefied natural gas and petroleum-related products — all used to generate electricity — soared ahead of the summer after Tokyo Electric Power Co. shut down all of its nuclear power plants for inspections following a defect-coverup scandal.

For September only, the trade surplus gained 4.8 percent to 1.1 trillion yen, logging the first rise in three months.

The trade surplus — exports minus imports — for the April-September period stood at 5.06 trillion yen. Exports climbed 4.9 percent to 27.18 trillion yen. Imports meanwhile grew 6.3 percent to 22.12 trillion yen.

Exports were supported by shipments to other parts of Asia, which slowed only briefly amid the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The trade surplus with the region was up 16.1 percent at 2.75 trillion yen.

Exports to other parts of Asia marked their third consecutive record high for a half year; imports did likewise for the second straight term.

“Trade may have been somewhat hurt by the impact of SARS in May and June, but the influence petered out and trade started to grow thereafter,” a senior ministry official said in briefing reporters.

The highlight was a record amount of trade with China, with exports totaling 3.35 trillion yen for their seventh-straight all-time high.

Japan exports various high-tech components, including semiconductor chips, to China for assembly in electronic devices, while it imports low-priced products, including clothing and personal computers.

Imports from China stood at 4.37 trillion yen, logging a record high for the eighth straight half-year term.

The trade surplus with the United States dropped 10.1 percent to 3.22 trillion yen, due partly to a stronger yen against the dollar and Japan’s shift of assembly plants overseas. But the yen’s sharp appreciation in late September had a limited impact on the exchange rate on average for the six-month period, the official said.

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