Japan's exports, imports surge in sign of renewed vigor

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Japan's exports rose at a faster-than-expected 12 percent pace in March, while imports jumped nearly 16 percent from a year earlier, the government said Thursday.

The data suggest relatively strong foreign demand could lift growth for the world's No. 3 economy in this quarter, economists said.

While domestic demand has remained lackluster, exports have lifted industrial production in recent months. Japan posted its first trade surplus in six years in 2016 thanks to a rebound in exports late in the year, though uncertainties over U.S. policy under U.S. President Donald Trump and over China's recovery persist.

The 7.23 trillion yen ($66 billion) in exports and 6.61 trillion yen ($60 billion) in imports resulted in a trade surplus of 614.7 billion yen ($5.6 billion), down 17.5 percent from a year before.

A revival of demand in China helped push exports up 16.4 percent from the year before to 1.3 trillion yen ($11 billion). But the increase was exaggerated by the timing of lunar new year holidays, which varies from year to year.

Exports to the U.S. climbed 3.5 percent to 1.35 trillion yen ($12 billion), while imports jumped 16.3 percent to 725 billion yen ($6.7 billion), leaving a surplus of 628.1 billion yen ($5.8 billion).

Although Trump has complained over Japan's perennial trade surplus, the two sides downplayed tensions over such issues during a visit by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week.

Resource-scarce Japan relies on imports of oil and gas, mostly from the Middle East, to light its cities and power its factories.

Higher oil prices boosted imports from Middle Eastern countries by more than 45 percent, including a 75 percent jump in imports from Saudi Arabia.

In fact, prices accounted for a large share, 12.5 percent year-on-year, of the increase in imports, said Marcel Thieliant of Capital Economics. Export prices rose only by 3.7 percent, while export volumes were up 6.6 percent, he said.

Vehicle exports rose 4 percent, while exports of electrical machinery were up 11 percent. Exports of other machinery jumped 14 percent.