Japan's exports jump in March

Tokyo (AFP) - Japanese exports recorded their biggest gain in more than two years in March, official data showed Thursday, in a sign of optimism for the world's third-biggest economy.

The strong result, which came in better than expected, backs up the view that Japan's economic growth is picking up steam.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Tuesday boosted its economic forecast for Japan, projecting a 1.2 percent annual expansion this year from a January projection of 0.8 percent. A key Bank of Japan business confidence also points to rising optimism among big manufacturers.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying for years to rejuvenate growth and end an extended period of on-and-off deflation through a policy blitz of easy money, stimulus and reform.

Exports expanded 12.0 percent in March to 7.2 trillion yen ($66.12 billion), the strongest expansion since January 2015 and the fourth straight monthly gain, according to the Finance Ministry.

"Japan?s production and exports are rising on the back of a global rebound in manufacturing," said Masaki Kuwahara, senior economist at Nomura Securities Co.

"In Asia, developing nations are doing well cyclically and that?s directly helping Japan's exports."

Export gains were led by strong demand for auto parts and optical instruments, such as mobile phone parts and tools to make semiconductors, the ministry said.

The data comfortably beat the market's expectation for a rise of 6.2 percent.

Imports also rose 15.8 percent to 6.6 trillion yen, more than expected, mainly due to rising oil and coal purchases needed to fire the Japanese economy.

Japan has been less reliant on nuclear power since the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown crisis that led to many of its atomic reactors shutting down over safety fears.

The latest figures put Japan's trade balance at 614.7 billion yen, down 17.5 percent from a year ago.

"The upshot is that net trade should have provided another boost to Q1 GDP growth," said Marcel Thieliant, senior Japan economist at Capital Economics.

Japan announces preliminary gross domestic product figures next month.

By regions, Japanese exports to top trade partner China rose 16.4 percent, while imports from the Asian giant expanded 10.3 percent.

Japan's exports to the United States expanded 3.5 percent, led by auto parts, but all-important vehicle shipments dropped 3.8 percent, the ministry said, as US new auto sales begin to show signs of losing steam.

-- Bloomberg News contributed to this report --