TOKYO: Japan posted a record 15th consecutive monthly trade deficit in September, as data on Monday showed the country’s energy bill soaring, but exports to China rebounded after a territorial row last year hurt demand for Japanese goods.
While the yen’s sharp decline is generally seen as a plus for Japan’s export picture, the overall volume of shipments turned down last month as an uncertain US economic recovery held back growth.
Sky-high energy bills from imports of pricey fossil fuels – made more expensive by the weak currency – also weighed on the nation’s trade balance.
Energy imports surged after the 2011 Fukushima crisis forced the shutdown of Japan’s nuclear reactors, which once supplied a third of the nation’s power.
There is little public appetite to turn the reactors back on although Japan’s conservative government has said a restart was all but certain once safety is assured.
“Japan will continue to rely on energy imports, and any boost to exports from the weaker yen won’t be enough to turn around the trade deficit,” said RBS Securities chief economist Junko Nishioka.
The dollar was at 98.12 yen in afternoon Tokyo forex trading, up from 97.72 yen in New York Friday afternoon, which helped the Nikkei 225 stock index to end 0.91 per cent higher.
The finance ministry said Monday that Japan recorded a deficit of 932.1 billion yen ($9.5 billion), 64.1 per cent higher than a 568.2 billion yen deficit a year earlier. It also marked the 15th straight month of deficit, the longest spell since comparable data started in 1979.
The value of exports rose by 11.5 per cent to 5.97 trillion yen, helped by shipments to China – Japan’s largest trading partner – which rose by 11.4 per cent from a year earlier.
The improving figures come after a territorial dispute over a set of islands in the East China Sea set off protests in China and a consumer boycott of Japan-branded goods.
The unrest last year forced Japanese businesses to temporarily shutter operations in China, while the Asian neighbours’ trading relationship took a huge hit.
“Exports to China are on a gradual recovery path,” Masahiko Hashimoto, economist at Daiwa Institute of Research, told AFP.
Shipments to the key US market were up 18.8 per cent on year, but analysts said growth appeared to be stalling, after a two-week government shutdown threatened to send the US into a debt default.
“US consumer sentiment isn’t great because of the government shutdown,” Junichi Makino, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities, told Dow Jones Newswires.
Demand for Japanese goods from emerging Asian economies, which then sell to the United States, was also lacklustre, Makino said.
“Exports to Asian emerging economies such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, India and Thailand won’t recover unless the US economy improves further,” he added.
Overall, imports jumped 16.5 per cent to 6.90 trillion yen owing to the higher energy costs and rising demand for some electronic equipment and smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone.
Japan’s mixed trade picture is largely a result of the weak yen, which boosts the costs of imports but also inflates the value of exports.
The yen has declined by about a quarter against the dollar in the past year, boosting exporters’ competitiveness overseas and their bottom line.
The currency has been under pressure since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office late last year, launched a policy blitz that meshed government spending with a central bank monetary easing plan unveiled in April.
The moves are aimed at rebooting the world’s third-largest economy, which has suffered from growth-sapping deflation for years.
Abe’s efforts have started to bear fruit with the economy growing at an annualised rate of 3.8 per cent in the first half of the year, far outpacing other G7 economies, while business confidence hit a five-year high.
But Japan’s growth is facing possible headwinds after Tokyo vowed to press ahead with a sales tax hike seen as crucial to shrinking a huge national debt, although critics fear it would derail a budding economic recovery.