Japan recorded another steep fall in exports in August, highlighting the vulnerability of the nation’s finances amid persistently high imports of fuel. Thursday’s government data showed that shipments slipped almost 6% from a year earlier to Y5tn ($64bn), the third monthly fall in a row, while imports were 5.4% lower at Y5.8tn. The resulting trade deficit of Y754bn was among the widest since March 2011, when the Fukushima crisis led to the staggered closure of the country’s nuclear reactors. The figures underpin a structural shift in the country’s economic relationship with the rest of the world. Adjusted for seasonal variations, Japan has recorded trade deficits in each of the 18 months since the earthquake and tsunami, after decades of more or less uninterrupted surpluses. Now, as the government edges towards a gradual phasing-out of nuclear power, increasing its reliance on imported fossil fuels, many expect these deficits to linger. "This [the nuclear phase-out] could be a turning point for Japan," said Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the International Energy Agency, the developed world’s energy watchdog, and now an adviser to Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, reported Japan's Kyodo news agency . A rise in prices, caused for instance by a blockage of the Straits of Hormuz, he said, could drive the nation’s current account – which includes investment returns – into deficit. "The confidence of financial markets could be lost for government bonds and the yen." For now, the world’s third-biggest economy cannot rely on earning its money back through exports. The provisional data from the ministry of finance showed that August shipments to western Europe fell by 28% from a year earlier, thanks to big falls in exports to Germany (18%) and the UK (42 %). Exports to China posted their third successive decline. August’s 10% fall was only slightly better than a 12 % slump in July. The outlook for trade with China, Japan’s biggest trading partner, has been clouded in recent weeks by a spiralling dispute over ownership of a chain of islands in the East China Sea. While violent unrest has subsided, threatened boycotts of Japanese goods have driven down shares in companies with big exposure to China. China’s slowdown was a major theme of discussions at this week’s meeting of policy makers at the Bank of Japan, after which the bank surprised markets with a broad package of easing measures. Masaaki Shirakawa, the BoJ governor, said the bank had revised down its growth forecasts and pushed its expected timetable for recovery six months into the future.