Japan’s exports and imports hit the highest levels on record in fiscal 2005, but larger growth in imports spurred by surging oil prices dented the customs-cleared trade surplus for the first time in four years, the Finance Ministry said Thursday.

In the year ending March 31, exports grew 10.7 percent to 68.0 trillion yen, while imports expanded 19.9 percent to 60.4 trillion yen, pushing the trade surplus down 30.3 percent to 7.9 trillion yen, the ministry said in a preliminary report.

The smaller trade surplus stemmed from record-high oil prices, which inflated the value of imports. Crude oil prices averaged $56 per barrel in fiscal 2005, up 44.7 percent and lifting crude oil imports by 56.9 percent in value terms.

The data show Japan logged record-high exports and imports with the rest of Asia and the European Union in the year, and marked the biggest trade surplus with the United States in 20 years.

Economists have forecast that growing imports propelled by high oil prices and solid domestic demand will continue to cut into the trade surplus in the coming months, but growth in exports will probably cushion the effects.

“The outlook for exports is positive, given the upbeat economic environment in Japan’s trading partners and rising competitiveness in Japanese products abroad, partly on a weak, yen” said Takahide Kiuchi, senior economist at Nomura Securities Co.

“Today, the yen’s real effective exchange rate quoted by the Bank of Japan is at its lowest level in 20 years.”

Japan’s exports to other Asian economies hit a record 32.90 trillion yen in fiscal 2005, up 9.8 percent from the previous year, and imports logged a record 26.48 trillion yen, up 15.7 percent.

The trade surplus with the rest of Asia fell 9.1 percent to 6.43 trillion yen, for the first contraction in four years.

Japan’s exports to China, excluding Hong Kong, reached a record 9.34 trillion yen, up 15.5 percent, and imports hit a record 12.49 trillion yen, up 17.4 percent, generating a customs-cleared trade deficit of 3.15 trillion yen, up 23.6 percent.

The trade surplus with the U.S. came to 8.02 trillion yen in fiscal 2005, up for the second straight year and marking the highest level since fiscal 1986.

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