TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's exports -- once a key driver of growth -- tumbled faster than ever in February as a deteriorating economy forced consumers on every continent to put the brakes on buying new cars.
The country's carmakers, which until last year boasted massive profits, are among the biggest casualties of Japan's deepest recession since the end of World War II. Iconic brands Toyota, Honda and Nissan face what could be their bleakest business year ever.
They have all responded aggressively to try to stem the damage, reducing shifts, suspending factory lines and announcing thousands of job cuts over the past few months. Economists say they've never seen Japanese companies move so quickly to adjust inventories, helped by their greater reliance on temporary contract workers who can be eliminated more easily than full-time employees.
Overseas shipments in Februrary plunged an unprecedented 49.4 percent from a year earlier, the government said Wednesday. The figure marks the sharpest decline in the world's second-largest economy since the Finance Ministry began compiling comparable data in 1980.
Demand, particularly of motor vehicles, plunged in all regions of the world including North America, Europe and Russia.
The International Monetary Fund expects Japan's economy to contract 5.8 percent for the 2009 calendar year, though many economists predict it could be far worse.
The unemployment rate stood at 4.1 percent in January, but the figure doesn't account for workers who have simply dropped out of the labor market altogether. So-called discouraged workers, who have stopped actively looking for a job, are counted in Japanese labor data as part of the "non-working population" instead of the unemployed.
A recent report by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare estimated that nearly 158,000 "non-regular" employees in Japan's manufacturing sector will have lost their jobs between October and March.
In separate industry figures released Tuesday, Toyota Motor Corp., which is forecasting its first annual net loss since 1950, said its global production plunged by nearly half in February from a year earlier. Honda Motor Corp. reported a 43 percent drop in global output, while Nissan Motor Co. said its worldwide production declined 51 percent.
Overall industrial production fell a record 10 percent in January, and February figures, scheduled for release Monday, are expected to show a further contraction.
But Goldman Sachs economist Chiwoong Lee in Tokyo said exporters' moves may be paying off, shedding a glimmer of hope on Wednesday's otherwise dismal data.
Although exports to China fell almost 40 percent, the contraction eased for the first time in seven months, particularly in the electric equipment sector.
"The overall downtrend in exports is unchanged, but in sectors where inventory correction has gained traction, we are starting to see signs that declines are halting," Lee said in a note to clients. "A full recovery is still far away, but further deterioration is a diminishing possibility, and we expect exports to trend flat at low levels."
The global slowdown also began sapping domestic demand for imports, which fell 43 percent in February from a year earlier. As a result, Japan posted its first trade surplus in five months, breaking a run of four straight months in the red.
Despite the surplus, exports to the rest of Asia retreated 46 percent, and exports to EU countries were down 55 percent. Shipments of motor vehicles plummeted 64 percent, with those to the U.S. down 71 percent. Overall exports to the United States fell 58 percent.
Officials, including the finance minister, have begun to publicly call for more government spending to wrest the country out of recession.
Japan has already passed a stimulus package of about 12 trillion yen, including tax breaks for companies, cash payout to individuals, assistance for businesses and reduced toll fees for roads. But Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano said last weekend it probably won't be enough, suggesting additional spending of possibly 20 trillion yen ($208 billion).