TOKYO—Japanese exports rose more than expected in January as brisk orders for electronics parts and construction materials from Asian firms helped compensate for still-anemic shipments to the U.S. and Europe.
Exports surged 40.9% on year to 4.902 trillion yen, Ministry of Finance data showed Wednesday. That beat the average forecast for a 36.4% rise in a poll of economists by Dow Jones Newswires.
The positive figure reflects how China and other Asian countries continue to demand more semiconductors, plastics and chemicals for manufacturing and construction. This Asia-led rebound in exports may strengthen the view that Japan's economy won't fall back into recession in 2010. While a weak job market and deflation still plague the economy, some firms are making up for weak domestic sales with brisk shipments to high-growth Asian markets. Operating profit at Asahi Glass Co., for example, bounced back in the final quarter of last year due in part to strong LCD glass sales to China.
January's strong exports were led by a 79.9% increase in shipments to China, which totaled 920.0 billion yen. Exports to Asia rose 68.1% to 2.720 trillion yen.
The data "confirm the nation's shipments will remain strong in the months ahead thanks to demand related to expanding infrastructure in Asian countries," said Mizuho Research Institute economist Atsushi Matsumoto.
Also behind the continued rebound in exports was the first rise in shipments to the U.S. in 29 months. Exports rose 24.2% to 710.4 billion yen, as the U.S. economy shows some signs of recovering further.
But Toyota Motor Corp.'s recall problem could still weigh on auto exports to the U.S., where Congress is holding hearings on the issue this week.
On a unit basis, auto exports to the U.S. fell 26.5% on month in January. That fall was likely due to the tendency for all types of exports to drop on month in January, due to the New Year holiday when manufacturing grinds to a halt. It didn't necessarily represent the ongoing troubles facing Toyota, a Ministry of Finance official told reporters.
"If Toyota handles congressional hearings inappropriately, the firm may be forced to cut their production. That will have a certain negative impact on the Japanese economy," said Mizuho Research Institute's Mr. Matsumoto.
Meanwhile, imports posted their first on-year rise in 15 months, due in part to higher oil and other raw materials prices. Imports rose 8.6% in January to 4.817 trillion yen.
A rise in prices from a year ago pushed up the overall cost of crude and raw oil by 76.1% to 810.4 billion yen, despite the fact that import volumes were down 3.0%.
Beyond the higher oil prices, the rise in overall import value was also due to a more encouraging trend for the Japanese economy, analysts said. The view that the export recovery is set to continue is prompting firms to buy more parts and materials for production of goods for export, they said.
Reflecting that trend, imports from Asia rose 5.6% to 2.164 trillion yen, their first rise in 15 months, as Japanese firms bought more electronics parts and other goods.
The balance in Japan's January merchandise trade balance logged a 85.2 billion yen surplus, due to the stronger-than-expected export growth. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires and the Nikkei on average expected a 144.9 billion yen deficit.