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Japan trade deficit hits record; fuel imports rose

TOKYO — Disaster-battered Japan reported Thursday its biggest fiscal year trade deficit ever, a contrast from decades of surpluses on booming exports, as a nuclear crisis boosted expensive oil and gas imports.

The Finance Ministry's preliminary trade data showed Japan racked up a record 4.41 trillion yen ($54 billion) trade deficit for fiscal 2011, which ended March 31, as the nation imported oil and gas to make up for an electricity shortfall.

All but one of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are now offline since a nuclear crisis set off in March 2011 by the tsunami in northeastern Japan. Although the central government, eager to restart some of the reactors, has been carrying out safety tests on the nuclear plants, local officials have been wary of giving a go-ahead.

The earthquake and tsunami also hurt manufacturing, not only in northeastern Japan but for those companies that had counted on supplies from that area. In fiscal 2011, exports dropped 3.7 percent from the previous fiscal year, while imports climbed 11.6 percent, according to the Finance Ministry.

The tsunami destroyed backup generators at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, sending three reactors into meltdown, setting off the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, spewing radiation into the air and sea and contaminating farmland, forests and homes.

The latest trade plight is striking, given Japan's past politically sensitive reputation as a giant exporter, which had at times even made it a target of international criticism such as the "Japan-bashing" three decades ago.

The ministry said comparable electronic trade data go back to fiscal 1979, but the latest number was bigger than those dating back to the Meiji period, starting in 1868.

Analysts say that if expensive fuel imports continue, Japanese consumers will likely foot higher utility bills, and that could dampen consumer spending, further hurting the economy.

Japan had posted its first trade surplus in five months in February, thanks to a recovery in auto and electronics exports to the U.S. But the ministry said Thursday that Japan's trade deficit sank back into the red for March, at 82.5 billion yen ($1.0 billion).

Although Japan had managed to eke out a surplus in a few months over the last year, they are minuscule compared to the massive surplus amassed in decades of economic growth.

In fiscal 2010, Japan had a 5.3 trillion yen trade surplus, up 2.8 percent from the previous fiscal year. In fiscal 2007, the surplus had been nearly double the 2010 mark.

But Japanese companies have been gradually moving production overseas to curb damage from the strong yen, which erodes the value of export earnings.

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