With high fuel costs pushing up import bills, a strong yen and fall out from the March quake-tsunami, Japan announced its first annual trade deficit for more than 30 years on Jan. 25.
The first calendar-year deficit in goods since 1980 came to 2.49 trillion yen (US$32 billion), the finance ministry said.
Imports were up 12% by value on 2010, it said, particularly crude oil and liquefied natural gas, while exports fell 2.7%, led by automobiles, semiconductors and other components.
After rising from the ashes of World War II Japan established itself as a trading nation, enjoying enormous surpluses with its competitive cars, electronics and other exports. But the resource-poor nation's energy imports have soared in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis with atomic power stations being taken offline and fossil fuel plants used to make up the difference.
The earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disaster also disrupted manufacturing supply chains across Japan, while the eurozone debt crisis slowed the global economy and sent traders scurrying to the safety of the yen, driving up its value and reducing Japanese exporters' income.
In total, the cost of crude oil imports jumped 21.3%, LNG was up 37.5% and petroleum products rose 39.5%, while automobile exports fell 10.6%, with electronic parts down 14.2%.
The trade deficit with China, Japan's biggest trading partner, was more than five times that of 2010. The country recorded a trade surplus with the European Union, but it was down 31.3% on 2010.
Japan posted a deficit of 10.8 trillion yen with the Middle East alone, which provides almost all its oil, and a deficit of 3.1 trillion yen with Oceania, the source of large quantities of raw materials, especially Australia.
Japan's last calendar-year trade deficit came in 1980, when the nation was reeling from the second oil crisis and imports exceeded exports by 2.6 trillion yen -- still a record.
"It was the worst year for Japan's trade since 1980. It was caused by slumps in exports and rises in imports due to the higher need for alternative energy," said Satoshi Osanai, economist at Daiwa Institute of Research.
"Trade went in bad directions both ways," he said, noting that export falls had been worse in the 2008 financial turmoil that followed Lehman Brothers' collapse, when Japan recorded a trade deficit over the fiscal year.
Japanese demand for oil and other fuel is unlikely to decrease in the near future and Osanai said resource prices remained high, "inflicting a big negative impact."
The strong yen, which hit repeated post-World War II highs against the dollar in 2011 and remains close to its peak, contributes to lowering import costs but its negative effect on exports is larger.
UBS economist Daiju Aoki warned Japan was on course to record repeated trade deficits. "As the nation ages its production capability declines, hurting export power," he said. "Japan will come to run trade deficits over the long term. It may return to figures in the black in 2012 or 2013 but the trend of suffering deficits could start."
Nonetheless Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, the top government spokesman, pointed out Japan's balance of payments -- which includes services and other transactions -- was still in surplus. "There has been a structural change over the way our country earns through international trade," he said, but he warned that Japanese manufacturing jobs were going overseas. "It's important that we secure jobs in Japan," he said.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012