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Economy

Japan's trade surplus shrinks 90% in April on weak China shipments

Trend of falling exports and rising imports threatens to weigh on GDP

Overall Japanese exports fell 2.4% on the year to 6.65 trillion yen in April.

TOKYO -- Slowing exports to China are eating away at Japan's trade surplus, which dropped 90.3% on the year in April, fanning fears for the country's economic growth outlook.

Overall Japanese exports fell 2.4% on the year to 6.65 trillion yen ($60.2 billion) in April, according to trade statistics released by the Ministry of Finance on Wednesday. Shipments to China dropped 6.3%, to 1.23 trillion yen, marking the second straight month of on-year declines. 

Total imports, on the other hand, jumped 6.4% to 6.59 trillion yen. The result left the trade surplus -- exports minus imports -- at 60.4 billion yen, though this was the third straight month in the black.

Preliminary gross domestic product figures released by the Cabinet Office on Monday show 2.1% growth in real terms for the January-March term, as a quarterly decline in imports pushed up GDP numerically. But if the trend of rising imports seen in April continues, it is likely to pull down GDP growth in the April-June period and beyond. 

Tech exports to China took particularly steep plunges in April. Semiconductor component shipments fell 21.5%, while semiconductor equipment dropped 41%.  

Exports of metalworking machinery and auto parts also declined significantly. Food exports slipped 8.2%, undermining Tokyo's goal of shipping 1 trillion yen worth of food overseas in a year.

"China's economic slowdown is inevitable, despite tax breaks and other stimulus measures," said Masato Koike, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, adding, "Exports from Japan are unlikely to bottom out for the time being."

Exports to a number of other Asian markets were also sluggish in April. Shipments to South Korea fell 4.2%, while those to Taiwan declined 2.7%. Singapore-bound exports dropped 3.9%, and those to Hong Kong fell 1.8%.

Shipments to Vietnam and India increased, but China's slowing economy appears to have had a dampening effect on Japan's business with other countries in the region.

As for Western markets, U.S.-bound exports rose 9.6% but shipments to the European Union dropped 2.6%. The figure for the U.K. fell even more sharply, at 10.4%.

Even as Japan was selling fewer goods abroad, it was buying more from overseas. 

Imports of fossil fuels, including crude oil and natural gas, surged in April in terms of value, climbing 7% on the year to 1.469 trillion yen. Higher oil prices contributed to the rise, and there is a possibility Japan rushed to import more ahead of a U.S. move to completely ban purchases of Iranian oil in May.

The value of Japan's imports from China rose 5.9% in April, while its imports from the EU expanded 10.6%. After the implementation of a Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement in February, the value of meat imported from Europe jumped 46% in April.

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