Japan Details First Trade Deficit Since 1980

The Japanese government has announced that the country's trade balance has gone negative. It's the first time since 1980 that Japan's export-based economy has recorded a trade deficit. Economists say the strength of the yen and weak global demand have hit Japanese exports hard.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NPR's business news starts with a turning point for Japan.

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MONTAGNE: Tokyo today reported Japan's first trade deficit since 1980. For the last three decades, Japan has exported so many goods to the world, it's run trade surpluses. But last year, Japan imported more than it exported - $32 billion more. The shift in fortunes comes after last year's earthquake and tsunami and nuclear power plant shutdowns.

From Tokyo, Lucy Craft has more.

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Last year's quake and tsunami slashed Japanese exports, after severed supply lines temporarily paralyzed production at automakers and electronics companies. Meanwhile, most of the country's nuclear plants are offline, with residents worried about safety. So Japan has been forced to switch to natural gas, which has hiked its import bill.

The March disasters were compounded by a record strong yen, which makes Japanese exports more expensive and less competitive overseas. Japan's central bank said the trade deficit was a temporary setback. But the first trade red ink since 1980 marks a sea change for Japan, a resource-poor country that has viewed exports as its only means of survival. That single-minded focus on trade pushed the surplus to a peak of over $80 billion by 1986. Japan's overwhelming dependence on exports for growth and its perceived unfair trade practices became a flashpoint for U.S. ire in the 1980s. The end of trade surpluses is widely viewed as ominous for the world's third largest economy, as it copes with the disaster aftermath, along with energy shortages and an aging society.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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