By Tetsushi Kajimoto
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's exports rose for a 15th straight month in February but slowed sharply from the prior month as shipments stalled because of Lunar New Year holidays - an event analysts dismissed as a one-off blip in the context of solid overseas demand.
"The Lunar New Year distortion caused a severe slowdown in February, but the increasing trend remained intact. Japan's exports are maintaining a rising trend reflecting the global economy's high growth and the outlook is expected to keep rising," said Yoshimasa Maruyama, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities.
Analysts expect solid global demand for semiconductors and electronics will support the expansion in exports, but they also worry that U.S. President Donald Trump's import tariffs on steel and aluminum could spark a trade war.
"Based on the firm trend in overseas machinery orders and the elevated level of business sentiment globally, we see a solid outlook for exports," said Yuichiro Nagai, economist at Barclays Securities.
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Ministry of Finance (MOF) data out on Monday showed exports grew 1.8 percent, roughly in line with a 1.9 percent increase expected by economists in a Reuters poll. It followed a revised 12.3 percent rise in January.
In volume terms, Japan's exports fell 2.1 percent in February from a year ago, the first drop in 13 months, the data showed.
SMBC Nikko Securities' Maruyama estimated that real exports grew 3.6 percent on average in January and February combined, up by 1.3 percentage point from the previous quarter, with exports on track for an eighth consecutive quarter of growth in January-March.
By region, exports to China, Japan's biggest trading partner, fell 9.7 percent year-on-year in February, the trade data showed.
Shipments to Asia, which account for more than half of Japan's exports, declined 3.2 percent in the year to February.
Shipments to the United States rose 4.3 percent in the year to February, driven by hybrid cars. Automobile shipments to the United States jumped 12.3 percent.
The trade data suggested that net trade may have weighed on gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the current quarter, but some economists expected a rebound in export volumes in March.
"Today's trade figures will not deter those in the U.S. government who want to erect additional barriers to trade," said Marcel Thieliant, senior Japan economist at Capital Economics.
Japan's trade surplus with the United States rose an annual 3.4 percent in February to 631 billion yen ($5.94 billion) - the first gain in three months - at a time when Trump seeks bilateral deals to fix trade imbalances under his "America First" policy.
Trump pressed ahead earlier this month with import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, describing the dumping of these products in the U.S. market as "an assault on our country". [nL4N1QQ1M8]
Japan's overall imports rose 16.5 percent in the year to February, broadly matching the median estimate of a 17.1 percent increase, led by imports of clothing from China and rising costs of crude oil and liquefied natural gas.
The overall trade balance came to a surplus of 3.4 billion yen, versus the median estimate of a 99.6 billion yen deficit.
($1 = 106.1400 yen)
(Reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Eric Meijer)