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Exports in the month totalled 4.04 million tonnes, their highest level since March 2011. Volumes were also up 11.1% on the month, according to the latest figures from the country's Ministry of Finance.

Exports to Asia increased by 14.5% from the previous month and by 10.2% from year-earlier levels to 3.23 million tonnes.

For the full fiscal year, export volumes to the region rose 9.6% to 34.59 million tonnes.

But while exports to north Asian markets such as China and newly industrialised economies (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) showed strong month-on-month growth in March, industry officials say that this was largely due to seasonal factors such as a rebound in demand following the Chinese New Year.

“Overall, markets such as China and Korea remain not that good for exports because of quite weak economic growth and too much supply. The Southeast Asian markets such as Thailand continue to be the most important markets as they are still expanding,” noted one official.

Indeed, while exports to the NIEs were up 21.1% on the month at 1.26 million tonnes, they were up just 0.7% on the year. Similarly, exports to China rose 20.1% on the month to 526,000 tonnes, but fell 0.5% on the year.

By contrast, exports to member countries of the Assn of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), while up a more moderate 12.1% on the month, increased by 20.7% on the year to 1.29 million tonnes, reinforcing its position as Japan's largest market.

For the full fiscal year, exports to Asean shot up 22.8% to 13.61 million tonnes.

That compares with an increase of just 2.3% for shipments to the NIEs, which totalled 13.18 million tonnes; and a 7.1% decline in exports to China, which dropped to 5.93 million tonnes.

Export volumes to China have now dropped to their lowest levels since 2005.

Meanwhile, the slide in imports continued as the weakening yen eroded the competitive edge of regional players. While imports were up 10.1% on the month, they declined 14.6% on the year to 541,929 tonnes. This results in an annual decline of 7.9% to 7.45 million tonnes.