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The country’s trade balance surprisingly fell into the red for the first time in nearly two years in January as exports significantly slowed ahead of a holiday in Asia, while imports grew amid rising commodity prices, the government said Wednesday.

The value of exports in the reporting month grew 1.4 percent from a year earlier to ¥4.97 trillion, for the 14th consecutive month of gain. But the pace of increase was much slower than the rise of 12.9 percent in December and 9.1 percent in November, given weakness in shipments to China and other Asian economies, the Finance Ministry said in a preliminary report.

Imports expanded 12.4 percent, the 13th straight monthly increase, to ¥5.443 trillion, due largely to hikes in crude oil and other energy costs. The trade balance stood at minus ¥471.4 billion, the first deficit since March 2009.

Analysts say, however, the underlying trend of exports remain strong, echoing the government’s view that recovering exports and industrial output will help growth re-emerge very soon after the recent pause.

Negative impact mainly came from slower exports to China, Japan’s biggest trading partner, which grew only 1 percent to ¥928.8 billion, although this was the 15th consecutive month of increase. In December, the exports grew 20.1 percent.

The Finance Ministry said exports to China tend to slow in January ahead of the Lunar New Year’s holiday in early February.

The figures were measured on a customs-cleared basis.

Exports to Asia as a whole gained 0.4 percent to ¥2.73 trillion. Those to the United States grew 6 percent to ¥752.9 billion and those to the 27-nation European Union declined 0.7 percent to ¥575.9 billion.

“The January trade data showed a negative result,” Kohei Okazaki, an economist at Nomura Securities Co., said in his report. “It might be a little bit uncomfortable to see weak exports to the United States in spite of recent signs of firmness in the U.S. economy.”

Impact from the Lunar New Year holiday makes it harder to read the trend of exports to Asia, Okazaki said. But he also refused to be too pessimistic.

“We need to consider the possibility that exports could jump in February,” he said.

By product, Japan registered rises in exports of mineral fuels and steel, as well as construction and mining machinery, while boosting imports of crude oil, iron ore and petroleum products.

The value of crude oil imports came to ¥920 billion in January, up 10.6 percent — the biggest increase in seven months.

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