Japan's exports in December rose 2.0 percent from a year earlier for the first increase in 25 months, boosted by brisk shipments to China in a sign that the initial impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic has eased, government data showed Thursday.

Meanwhile, the country's exports in 2020 plunged 11.1 percent from the previous year to 68.41 trillion yen ($660 billion), marking the largest fall in 11 years, as the pandemic battered global demand for industrial products such as cars, the Finance Ministry said in a preliminary report.

New cars to be exported overseas are lined up at a port in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, in August 2020. (Kyodo)

December's exports stood at 6.71 trillion yen, boosted by a 10.2 percent jump in shipments to China due to strong demand for items such as plastic and refined copper.

The country's exports had seen the longest stretch of decline from December 2018 to November last year since comparable data became available in January 1979, amid heightened U.S.-China trade tensions and the coronavirus pandemic.

But uncertainty remains over the outlook for Japan's exports amid a recent resurgence of virus infections across the globe. In December, the country's shipments to the United States and the European Union were still down 0.7 percent and 1.6 percent from a year earlier, respectively.

A 3.9 percent rise in auto shipments to the world's biggest economy was offset by a 59.4 percent plunge in exports of aircraft parts.

In the reporting month, imports fell 11.6 percent to 5.96 trillion yen, down for the 20th straight month, leading the country to post a goods trade surplus of 751.01 billion yen, the sixth consecutive month of black ink.

As for 2020 figures, the 11.1 percent drop was the sharpest since a 33.1 percent dive logged in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis, with the value of exports last year at the lowest level since 63.75 trillion yen in 2012.

By item, the country's car exports in the reporting year plummeted 20.0 percent from 2019, the biggest fall since a 51.3 percent tumble in 2009. Auto parts exports declined 19.1 percent.

Imports dropped 13.8 percent to 67.73 trillion yen, the steepest decrease since a 15.8 percent slide in 2016, mainly due to the falling price of crude oil and other energy resources. The figure was the smallest since 66.04 trillion yen in 2016.

Both exports and imports were down for the second consecutive year. The falls left Japan with a goods trade surplus of 674.73 billion yen, the first black ink in three years.

As overseas demand was dampened throughout last year by the global spread of the novel coronavirus, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, Japan's monthly exports posted double-digit percentage falls on year between March and August.

"Double-digit percentage declines of exports and imports in 2020 reflect the magnitude of the virus impact on the global economy," said Yuichi Kodama, chief economist at the Meiji Yasuda Research Institute.

Kodama said, although pickup trends in China and the United States are likely to continue, Japan's shipments will "remain in a severe situation in the next few months" partly due to strict restrictions on economic activity in Europe amid resurgent virus infections.

"As for 2021, there is still a high level of uncertainty and the economic outlook greatly depends on the progress of (COVID-19) vaccinations," Kodama said.

In 2020 by country, the goods trade surplus with the United States dropped 21.6 percent to 5.19 trillion yen, logging the largest decline since a 47.8 percent drop in 2009. Exports decreased 17.3 percent to 12.61 trillion yen, weighed down by a 19.2 percent tumble in car exports, with imports down 14.0 percent to 7.43 trillion yen.

Exports to China climbed 2.7 percent to 15.08 trillion yen, as they fully recovered from a plunge at the start of the year, boosted by brisk shipments of items such as refined copper and hybrid cars. Imports dipped 5.3 percent to 17.48 trillion yen, led by falls in clothing, with Japan seeing a trade deficit of 2.39 trillion yen.

All figures were compiled on a customs-cleared basis.