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The nation’s unemployment rate hit 5 percent in January after falling to its lowest level in two years the month before, but the government said Friday it was a temporary setback in a bigger move toward recovery.

The jobless rate in the world’s second-largest economy has hovered around 5 percent since July 2001, as a long stagnation took its toll on the labor market.

The unemployment rate stood at 4.9 percent in December, down from 5.1 percent in November. Analysts had expected January’s rate to stay at 4.9 percent.

The economy marked its best growth spurt in 13 years during the October-December quarter, largely on the back of strong exports to the United States, China and the rest of Asia, according to government data released last week.

“The situation is improving along with the shifts in the overall economy,” said Michio Matsumura, a government official overseeing jobless figures. “But the momentum is weak, and that’s why the numbers are zigzagging.”

The number of unemployed people in January totaled 3.23 million, down 340,000 from the same month a year ago, marking the eighth consecutive month of year-on-year improvement, according to government data.

Joblessness declined among women and older men, but remained a problem among young males, Matsumura said.

The jobless rate for men stood at 5.2 percent in January, while the rate for women was at 4.6 percent. The unemployment rate among males ages 15 to 24 stood at 10.5 percent.

The job situation for women has been better in Japan than for men because many women here look for part-time jobs and have an easier time finding work in the growing service sector.

The employment situation for older men has shown some signs of improvement as the economy improves.

In recent months, private-sector investments have risen mostly at exporters marking better profitability.

China, which is expanding at a solid rate, has shown an enormous appetite for Japanese machinery, electronics parts and other goods.

Consumer spending, long the weak spot in the economy, also is showing a moderate recovery as people snap up flat-panel TVs, DVD recorders and other digital gadgets.

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