By Osamu Tsukimori
TOKYO (Reuters) - China overtook Japan as the world's top coal importer for the first time in 2011, customs data from the countries showed, partly driven by robust Chinese demand.
Japan had held the No.1 position since at least 1975 until 2010, the International Energy agency's Coal Information showed.
China, also the world's biggest coal producer and consumer, imported 182.4 million tonnes of the fuel in 2011, 10.8 percent higher than a year earlier, data from the country showed.
Japan's customs-cleared imports fell 5.1 percent to 175.2 million tonnes last year, hurt by slack demand for coking coal as steelmakers curbed production.
It is unclear whether China will retain this position, however, as a Reuters poll last month showed the country's coal imports are expected to grow at a slower pace in 2012, as domestic appetite moderates and home production rises.
Chart graphic on imports
In January-November, Japan's coking coal imports dropped 9.4 percent to 63.5 million tonnes from a year ago, according to Reuters calculations.
Japan's imports of thermal coal used in power generation, meanwhile, edged down 0.4 percent to 101.2 million tonnes in 2011 as the magnitude 9.0 earthquake in March damaged coal-fired power plants along the country's northeast coast.
The March quake is expected to lower Japanese utilities' consumption of thermal coal by 0.2 percent in the year ending March 31, the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ) projected last month.
If nuclear reactors did not resume operations amid public anxieties following the Fukushima plant disaster, thermal coal demand could jump by 8.3 percent in 2012/13, IEEJ said.
Thermal coal demand should decline by 7.2 percent in 2012/13 if reactors restarted from next summer, IEEJ added.
(Additional reporting Chen Aizhu in BEIJING; Editing by Joseph Radford and Sugita Katyal)