Japan's exports fell for the first time in 16 months and the trade surplus plunged after a record earthquake and tsunami hit production, the finance ministry said Wednesday.
The country may fall into a trade deficit in the near term amid rising prices of oil and raw materials, which inflated the value of March imports and ate into the trade balance, analysts said.
The latest data further illustrate the emerging impact of the March 11 disasters, in which a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami it unleashed devastated swathes of the north east coast and triggered an atomic emergency.
Economists see Japan sliding into a temporary recession after the devastation to infrastructure and manufacturing facilities in the northeast, plunging the nation into its worst crisis since World War II.
"If Japan posts a trade deficit in April and May, GDP is also likely to contract in the April-June period," said Akiyoshi Takumori, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management.
Japan's trade surplus in March reached 196.5 billion yen ($2.37 billion), down 78.9 percent but still managing to stay in the black for the second straight month, the finance ministry said.
Exports in March fell 2.2 percent to 5.87 trillion yen, falling for the first time in 16 months due to reduced shipments of automobiles, it said.
It came slightly below a 2.0 percent decline expected in a joint poll by Dow Jones and the Nikkei.
The fall was led by vehicle exports, which contracted 27.8 percent, the ministry said, after Japan's leading automakers were forced to halt production amid broken supply chains and power shortages.
The yen came under pressure in Asia on Wednesday after the trade data, weakening to 82.92 against the dollar from 82.57 yen in New York late Tuesday.
"As the data showed a clear picture of sluggish exports, the market moved to dollar buying against the yen," said Sumino Kamei, senior analyst at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ.
"The data revealed a steep decline in automobile exports. As the supply chain damaged by the quake has not been restored yet, it is seen to take time until automobile exports will recover," Kamei said.
Many key component manufacturers are based in the worst-hit regions of Japan, their facilities damaged by the earthquake or inundated by the giant wave that followed. Shortages are expected to last for months.
The parts shortage has hit companies and production worldwide.
Since stopping production on March 11, Toyota Motor gradually reopened factories and is now operating at a 50-percent capacity, as it struggles to secure necessary parts.
March Japanese imports rose for the 15th straight month, increasing 11.9 percent to 5.67 trillion yen, on surging prices of oil and iron ore, the ministry said.
The value of oil imports rose 14.8 percent. The value of iron ore imports soared 74.9 percent. Coal imports also rose 39.4 percent.
Procurement of manufacturing parts from overseas also boosted imports, analysts said.
The disaster has depressed Japan's business and consumer confidence, as Tokyo Electric Power Co, which operates the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, makes slow progress to stop the world's worst atomic disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl explosion.
The ministry also said Japanese exports for the year to March rose 14.9 percent to 67.8 trillion yen, while imports rose 15.9 percent to 62.4 trillion.
The annual trade surplus rose 3.9 percent to 5.4 trillion yen, the ministry said.