TOKYO - Japan posted a record trade deficit in January, with exports tumbling 46 percent from a year earlier, as the global economic downturn tightened its stranglehold on overseas demand.

The Finance Ministry said Japan's trade deficit for the month widened to 952.6 billion yen ($9.92 billion) - the fourth straight month that imports exceeded exports. It was the biggest trade deficit since the government began compiling comparable data in 1979.

Japan, long criticized by trading partners for its big trade surpluses, has become a net importer in recent months because of the global slump. Exports were cut nearly in half, as shipments of cars, machinery, electronics and semiconductors to all major markets plunged.

The latest data mirrors the sharp declines throughout the export-reliant continent and signals that the pain in Asia may only deepen in the months ahead. South Korean exports fell a record 33 percent in January from the previous year, Taiwan's retreated 43 percent, and Singapore's fell 35 percent.

Japan's economy, the world's second-largest, shrank at its fastest rate in 35 years in the fourth quarter and at more than triple the pace of the 3.8 percent annualized contraction in the U.S.
From surplus to deficit

Exports to the U.S. fell 53 percent, with car shipments down 81 percent on a value basis. Japan's trade surplus with the U.S. fell 75 percent to 132.8 billion yen. Previously, exports to emerging economies had propped up Japan's trade surplus even as U.S. and European markets slowed. But shipments to Asia and Eastern Europe have also dropped precipitously.

Exports to Asia were down 47 percent, while those to Russia declined 66 percent. Japan's trade deficit with China expanded 61 percent to 562.7 billion yen ($5.86 billion), its fifth straight monthly deficit. Overall imports fell 31.7 percent to 4.4 trillion yen.

Meanwhile, top Japanese automakers reported yesterday a sharp plunge in production for January, the latest evidence of how severely the country's mainstay auto industry is being hit by the global slowdown.

Toyota Motor, the world's biggest automaker, said its worldwide production slid 39.1 percent from a year earlier to 487,984 vehicles in January.

Toyota's production in Japan was down 34.6 percent, while overseas production dived 44.2 percent. Worldwide vehicle production at Honda Motor declined 33.5 percent in January to 226,551 vehicles. It was the third straight month in which global production for Japan's second-biggest automaker fell from a year earlier.

The fall was particularly severe in the U.S., where Honda's production dropped 50.1 percent from a year earlier to 47,246 vehicles.Nissan Motor's global production in January plunged 54 percent to 145,286 vehicles, it said. Production in the U.S. dived a dramatic 70.7 percent to 18,741 vehicles.