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Exports rose in December for the first time since Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. failed 15 months ago, adding to signs that Japan is recovering from the global recession, government data showed Wednesday.

Finance Ministry officials also said China became Japan’s largest export market in 2009, surpassing the U.S. for the first time.

Shipments abroad rose 12.1 percent in December from a year earlier, the ministry said. Exports fell 6.3 percent in November.

Manufacturers from Honda Motor Co. to Fuji Xerox Co. are benefiting from renewed demand in emerging economies, including China, where gross domestic product expanded at the fastest pace since 2007 last quarter. The booming economy in Japan’s largest overseas market may help offset weak demand at home weighed down by falling wages and deflation.

“Shipments to Asia, especially China, have been growing a lot and these are strong results,” said Yoshiki Shinke, senior economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo. “It’s safe to say that exports were strong” in the fourth quarter.

The improvement in exports last month was partly due to a favorable year-on-year comparison. In December 2008, shipments abroad tumbled 35 percent as global trade froze in the aftermath of Lehman Brothers’ collapse in September. From a month earlier, exports rose a seasonally adjusted 2.5 percent in December, the report showed.

Imports slid 5.5 percent in December from a year earlier, the smallest drop in 14 months. Japan posted a trade surplus for an 11th straight month, totaling ¥545.3 billion.

While the yen is weaker than the 14-year high of 84.83 reached in November, it has advanced more than 3 percent this year and is still stronger than the 92.93 that manufacturers expect the currency to average in the year ending March 31.

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