- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

TOKYO (AP) - Japan’s exports continued to slump in March, hit by declining shipments of autos and electronics, underlining a grim outlook for the world’s second-largest economy as it struggles to climb out of recession.

Japan also recorded its first annual trade deficit in 28 years for the 12 months through March, the Ministry of Finance said Wednesday, as the global economic crisis sank demand for the nation’s mainstay exports.

Exports in March plunged 45.6 percent from a year earlier to 4.18 trillion yen ($42.4 billion), though the fall wasn’t as severe as February’s 49.4 percent decline, suggesting the meltdown in trade could be bottoming.

Shipments of cars and car parts to the U.S. and Europe remained weak, and exports of semiconductor components to Asia also declined, though the fall in exports to America moderated.

Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano said the results were alarming. “All of us _ the people, politicians and the government _ should take the numbers seriously.”

“We need to find out if made-in-Japan products and services are still staying competitive internationally,” he said.

Japan has heavily relied on foreign sales of its cars and gadgets to drive economic growth, and is grappling with an unprecedented collapse in global demand. Its economy shrank an alarming annual 12.1 percent in the October-December quarter, marking the steepest contraction since the oil shock of 1974.

Yosano said this week that the government planned to submit a record extra budget to finance a new stimulus package that calls for a record 15.4 trillion yen ($157 billion) in government to lift the economy out of the recession.

The trade deficit for the fiscal year that ended in March was 725.3 billion yen ($7.35 billion) _ marking the first deficit since the Ministry of Finance began compiling comparable data in 1980.

Exports to the major U.S. market in March fell 51.4 percent, easing from February’s 58 percent decline.

Imports in March fell 36.7 percent to 4.17 trillion yen, resulting in a trade surplus for the month of 11 billion yen ($111 million).

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