Japan's economy rebounds in February

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; 8:27 AM

TOKYO -- Japan's economy is leaping to life, with surging exports to China and the United States and rising expectations for robust growth throughout the coming year.

As China and much of Asia stormed back from recession in the past year, Japan had stood out as the weak sister in the region, with stagnant employment, creeping deflation and a humiliating quality-and-credibility scandal at Toyota, the country's largest and most-respected company.

But data released Wednesday by the Finance Ministry show that, when the world is in a buying mood, the world's second-largest economy has lost none of its ability to export high-quality consumer electronics, automobiles, heavy equipment and assembly-line machinery.

Exports in February increased at the fastest pace in three decades, jumping 45 percent from a year ago, as shipments to all regions of the world rose, according to the government. Exports have risen sharply for three consecutive months.

Unemployment is also beginning to fall, as consumer confidence rises, along with demand for services and imported goods.

As in January, the fastest growth was in Japan's exports to China, its largest trading partner, and to other parts of Asia. These shipments rose 56 percent.

The pace of increasing exports has led some major Japanese manufacturers, such as Mitsubishi Electric, to reverse earlier estimates of annual operating losses and predict substantial increases in net income. Komatsu, the world's second-largest maker of earth-moving equipment, predicted a 50 percent increase in sales to China in the coming year.

As important, exports to the United States are also rising rapidly from disastrous declines in 2009, when many Japanese companies found it all but impossible to sell cars and electronics to recession-panicked U.S. consumers.

Exports to the United States in February rose 50 percent over the previous year -- and automobile sales rose by a record 130 percent.

Finance Ministry officials told the Kyodo news service that the latest car sale figures suggest that Toyota's quality problems have not harmed overall exports of Japanese cars and other manufactured products to the United States.

It remains unclear how Toyota, after several rounds of massive recalls and a steady drip of bad publicity, will fare this year in the U.S. and other overseas markets.

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