Japan saw its first goods trade surplus in four months in July, while exports remained sluggish with the continued impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic suppressing overseas demand, government data showed Wednesday.

The country logged an 11.6 billion yen ($109 million) goods trade surplus, helped by the first increase in exports to China in seven months. Exports to Japan's largest goods trading partner rose 8.2 percent from a year earlier, according to a preliminary report by the Finance Ministry.

Overall exports in July dropped 19.2 percent from a year ago to 5.37 trillion yen to mark a double-digit fall for the fifth straight month, as the continued impact of the pandemic suppressed overseas demand. Exports sagged for the 20th consecutive month.

Imports posted a sharper fall of 22.3 percent, helping the world's third-largest economy log a trade surplus in the month. It was the 15th straight month of decline mainly on falling prices of crude oil imported from countries such as the United Arab Emirates and large drops in imports of liquefied natural gas and coal from Australia.

The pace of decline in July exports was slower than the 28.3 percent year-on-year drop in May, the sharpest since a 30.6 percent decrease in September 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis, and 26.2 percent fall in June. In March and April, exports slid 11.7 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively.

Auto-related exports, one of the Japanese economy's key components, stayed stagnant, with car exports sinking 30.0 percent, and those of car parts plunging 32.5 percent.

The latest monthly drop in imports was larger than the 14.4 percent shrinkage in the previous month, which mainly reflected a recovery in shipments from China, where the world's first large-scale outbreak of the virus was detected earlier this year.

As for China, Japan's exports grew to 1.33 trillion yen in the reporting month. By item, nonferrous metals such as refined copper soared 72.4 percent, while semiconductor-manufacturing equipment and autos also increased 23.6 percent and 19.0 percent, respectively.

Imports from the world's second-largest economy declined 9.8 percent to 1.46 trillion yen, with drops in those of clothes and auto parts offsetting rises in personal computers and textile products. The balance was 127.39 billion yen in deficit for Japan.

Across Asia including China, exports were down 8.2 percent, and imports sank 13.5 percent. Steel and automobile parts exports to Thailand decreased, while liquefied natural gas imports from Malaysia declined, with Japan seeing a trade surplus of 338.17 billion yen.

Exports to the United States fell 19.5 percent to 1.09 trillion yen, down for the 12th successive month. Poor sales of aircraft engine parts contributed most to the outcome, while an on-year drop in car exports was reduced to 6.7 percent compared to a 63.3 percent fall in June.

Imports from the United States decreased 25.5 percent to 578.88 billion yen, down for three consecutive months, resulting in a surplus for Japan of 512.48 billion yen.

With the European Union, Japan saw a trade deficit of 212.41 billion yen, as exports fell 30.5 percent to 439.26 billion yen and imports dropped 14.3 percent to 651.67 billion yen.

"Economic activity has resumed and continued in European countries and the United States, as well as China, once the virus spread slowed, which bolstered Japan's exports," said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at the Norinchukin Research Institute.

But Minami said that the scale of trade was still far from pre-pandemic levels, and is expected to remain weak "for the time being," citing a rekindling in U.S.-China tensions along with fear of further virus spread as factors which could cloud the outlook.

"If the Chinese economy comes to a standstill due to escalating trade tensions with the United States, it will become harder for Japan's exports to grow," Minami said.

All figures were compiled on a customs-cleared basis.

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