Japan posted its first trade deficit in almost two years last month, officials said Wednesday, amid rising commodity prices and weak demand for its exports ahead of China's Lunar New Year holiday.
The finance ministry said exports, a key driver of Japan's economy, rose just 1.4 percent in January -- the 14th consecutive month of growth, but a well off the 13 percent on-year surge in December.
That came as instability in the Middle East and North Africa pushed the price of oil and other commodities up amid concerns supplies could be cut, sending resource-poor Japan's import bill up 12.4 percent.
And analysts warned that with commodity prices looking set rise further Japan could see its cost of imports continue to grow.
The trade deficit for export-dependent Japan, which is struggling to revive its sagging economy, stood at 471.42 billion yen ($5.7 billion), compared with forecasts for a 49.6 billion yen surplus.
"Exports to China grew by only one percent in January, compared with 20.1 percent in December," said a finance ministry official.
"Overall exports, mainly to China and other parts of Asia where people celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday, slowed because of shipping adjustments," he said of the lead-up to the holiday in early February.
The economy, hit hard by the global downturn, is however broadly gathering steam as wider overseas demand remains strong, and officials predict the trade balance will swing back to black soon.
"The global economy has been recovering since late last year while a relatively lower yen is also helping Japanese exporters," said Hiroshi Watanabe, economist at Daiwa Institute of Research.
Japan's economy has been buffeted in recent months by a strong yen, which made exports more expensive and eroded companies' repatriated profits.
However, it has eased off its 15-year high of 80.21 against the dollar struck in November and is currently sitting around the high 82 yen mark.
Japan reported last month its trade surplus more than doubled in 2010 and exports to key trade partner China had hit a record high, as robust overseas demand indicated gathering momentum for its recovery.
December's 13 percent growth in exports, the second consecutive monthly acceleration, also showed the economy, highly reliant on auto, electronics and machinery exports, was starting to bounce back.
But Watanabe said the trade balance could be squeezed further in the coming months because of higher commodity prices, especially crude from the Middle East where Japan sources 90 percent of its oil.
"There are three main factors behind the surging commodity prices," he said. "Emerging economies are expanding further. Speculative capital is also hiking prices due to monetary easing policies of the world's major economies.
"Finally, the instability in the Middle East is pushing prices of oil and other resources higher."
Prime Minister Naoto Kan Tuesday summoned his key ministers for an emergency meeting as oil soared to two-year highs amid escalating violence in Libya and instability elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East.
Wednesday's trade data showed Japan's January imports at 5.44 trillion yen as the country was forced to pay more for iron ore and petroleum products as well as oil.
Exports were 4.97 trillion yen, modestly higher than a year earlier, thanks partly to demand for steel and construction machinery.
The Bank of Japan this week upgraded its view of the economy for the first time in nine months on accelerating global growth but kept its easy monetary policy in place due to persistent deflation.
Japan's real gross domestic product slipped an annualised 1.1 percent in the December quarter as expiring auto subsidies hit car sales, a new tobacco tax sapped cigarette demand and a strong yen hurt exports.
But the contraction was smaller than expected, and there are hopes the economy will pick up this quarter on improving demand from key partners such as China, which overtook Japan in 2010 as the world's second economy.