Japan's exports fell for the first time in 16 months in March, hit by the fallout from last month's massive earthquake and tsunami, which destroyed factories and damaged ports.
Auto exports especially took a beating as the twin disasters forced Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. to suspend their all Japanese production due to shortages of components.
Vehicle exports, which account for 10 percent of Japan's total shipments, plunged 27.8 percent in March, the finance ministry said Wednesday. U.S.-bound auto exports dropped 27.2 percent with vehicle shipments to Asia down 23.4 percent.
"It is very frustrating for automakers and other manufacturers. Despite steady demand abroad, they simply could not make their products due to a supply crunch following the disasters," said Hiroshi Watanabe, an economist at the Daiwa Institute of Research.
Overall exports in March declined 2.2 percent to 5.87 trillion yen ($71 billion), marking the first year-on-year fall in 16 months. Imports rose 11.9 percent to 5.67 trillion yen last month, the ministry said. The trade surplus for the month was 196.5 billion yen, down 78.9 percent from a year earlier.
The magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 destroyed many factories in northeastern Japan, crippling production of auto parts and other industrial components. The disasters also damaged ports and a major airport in the region, severely hampering exports. The human toll, too, was vast, with some 25,000 people killed.
Hajime Inoue, an economist at the Japan Research Institute, warned the fall in exports could worsen to 20-30 percent in the coming months.
"At least for March, some manufacturers were able to keep limited output by relying on stock. But by now, stock will be gone, forcing companies to completely shut down production," he said.
By regions, Japan's exports to the United States declined 3.4 percent to 828.7 billion yen, the first year-on-year fall in 15 months. Asia-bound exports slipped to 3.4 trillion yen, marking the first fall in 17 months.
Japanese exports to China edged up 3.8 percent, while those to the European Union grew 4.3 percent in March, the ministry said.
The parts shortage after the disasters forced Toyota Motor Corp., the world's No. 1 automaker, to halt its entire production in Japan from March 14 to 25. The company has said the disasters have caused a production loss of 260,000 cars. It has now resumed production at half normal levels.
Around 46 percent of Toyota vehicles made in Japan were shipped for export last year. Nissan exported more than half its Japan car production and Honda about 30 percent.
Nissan shut down all Japanese output for three days after March 11, while Honda Motor Co. halted operations at all its factories in Japan from March 14 to April 10.