Japan has posted a record trade deficit in January, as fuel imports rose sharply following last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster and exports were hit by a stronger yen and a slump in demand in Europe.
According to data released on Monday, the January deficit touched 1,475bn yen ($18.5bn), the highest since the nation began record-keeping in 1979, the finance ministry said.
The latest figure was more than triple the year-before shortfall of 479.4bn yen and far exceeded the previous monthly record of 967.9bn yen in January 2009 during the financial crisis.
The record figure comes after Tokyo registered an annual trade deficit in 2011, its first in 31 years.
"We expect this trend of deficit to continue until early 2013" as fuel demand for thermal power generation remains strong while slow global demand and the high yen hurts exports, said Yuichiro Nagai, an economist at Barclays Capital.
Though January's figures marked the fourth straight month of monthly deficit, it was in line with a 1.468 trillion shortfall expected by economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires.
Japan's overall exports tumbled 9.3 per cent to 4,510bn yen last month due to lower shipments of semi-conductors and other electronic devices.
Imports surged 9.8 per cent to 5,985bn yen, as purchases of liquefied natural gas shot up 74.3 per cent and coal rising 26.5 per cent.
Fossil-fuel demand surged in Japan after the March 11 earthquake-tsunami disaster sparked the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years, leading the government to take many atomic reactors offline.
"The trade deficit is likely to continue" for the time being, said Nagai, adding that increasing European debts have also dealt a blow to trade.
"The US economy is underpinning [Japanese] exports, as seen in higher US-bound shipments of automobiles, but demand from Europe is weak," the Barclays economist said.
Nomura Securities chief economist Takahide Kiuchi said Japan's deficit was expected to narrow closer to an April-June window, unless oil prices see a big rise.
"Industrial production and other data indicate that businesses are anticipating improvements in exports of electronics and automobiles to Asia, North America and Europe," he said.