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Japan’s exports grew 40.9 percent year-on-year in January to ¥4.902 trillion, the second straight monthly increase and a fresh sign that Asian demand remains robust, the Finance Ministry said Wednesday.

Imports rose for the first time since October 2008, up 8.6 percent to ¥4.817 trillion, the ministry said in a preliminary report, suggesting domestic demand may have finally picked up.

As a result, Japan posted a trade surplus of ¥85.20 billion, compared with a record deficit of ¥956.03 billion a year earlier, extending the black ink for the 12th consecutive month running.

The growth in exports was the biggest since February 1980. But the expansion is partly due to an advantageous year-on-year comparison. In January 2009, Japan’s exports plunged 45.7 percent — the steepest on record — in the face of the global economic crisis.

Exports to China swelled 79.9 percent, the biggest expansion since August 1985, to ¥920.02 billion, with shipments of high-tech components, auto parts and plastic products increasing.

Exports to China, Japan’s No. 1 trading partner, grew for the third straight month, while imports marked the 15th straight monthly contraction.

With the rest of Asia, exports jumped 68.1 percent to ¥2.72 trillion.

To the United States, exports turned up for the first time since August 2007, up 24.2 percent to ¥710.41 billion, backed by a pickup in demand for cars, auto parts and electronic devices, while imports from the U.S. rose for the first time in 16 months, driven by aircraft and optical instruments.

Shipments to the European Union expanded for the second straight month, up 11.1 percent to ¥579.97 billion.

By region, exports to the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe, and Russia remain in negative territory, according to the ministry.

The trade figures, measured on a customs-cleared basis before adjustments for seasonal factors, were released a day after the government downgraded its view on exports in a monthly report at a time when worries about the impact of Toyota Motor Corp.’s recall problems on the economy are mounting.

Car exports to the United States in terms of value ballooned 128.4 percent from the previous year. Still, compared with December, they fell 22.8 percent for the second straight monthly decline.

A Finance Ministry official said the month-on-month decline has probably nothing to do with Toyota’s problems, noting exports tend to fall in volume in January due to the New Year’s holiday season in Japan.

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