Japan Unemployment At 5 1/2-Year High

TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's jobless rate rose to a five-and-a-half year high in May, the government said Tuesday, possibly delaying a recovery for the world's second-largest economy even as manufacturers enjoy a nascent rebound.

The unemployment rate jumped to 5.2 percent from 5 percent in April as the number of jobless rose to nearly 3.5 million.

On the positive side, household spending unexpectedly logged its first gain since January 2008, boosted by Prime Minister Taro Aso's multibillion dollar stimulus measures.

Investors should get a better idea of what's in store for Japan's economy from Wednesday's "tankan" survey of business sentiment, which polls 10,000 businesses across the country.

"If companies' sense of excess employment recedes, we think that the jobless rate will eventually stop rising," said Takuji Aida, a senior economist at UBS Securities in Tokyo.

The tankan's headline sentiment index for large manufacturers is tipped to improve to minus 43 from a record low minus 58 in March, according to an average forecast of 11 economists surveyed by The Associated Press. The figure represents the percentage of companies saying business conditions are good minus those saying conditions are unfavorable.

The anticipated results would be encouraging and confirm that Japan's steepest recession since World War II is loosening its grip, analysts said. But they also cautioned against over-optimism.

Minus 43 "is still close to ones in the middle of past recessions," said Masamichi Adachi, an economist at JPMorgan Securities Japan. "The level indicates that the economy is still far below normal."

Figures out Tuesday showed that average monthly household spending -- a key indicator of private consumption -- edged up 0.3 percent in May from a year earlier. Aso's "eco-points" program encouraged sales of some energy-efficient electronics, while recent swine flu fears compelled consumers to buy more healthcare products.

Economists, however, say the improvement may be fleeting.

"Spending is likely to fall back toward the end of the fiscal year when policy impact fades given labor market deterioration and wage decline," said Chiwoong Lee, an economist at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo.

The total number of jobless people climbed by 770,000 from a year earlier to 3.47 million in May, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in its monthly report. Those with employment fell by 1.36 million from the previous year to 63.42 million.

A separate report by the labor ministry underscored the dreary jobs environment.

The ratio of job offers to job seekers hit 0.44 -- the lowest on record. The figure indicates that there were 44 positions available for every 100 job seekers.

The "income and employment environment surrounding households is turning increasingly severe despite some improvements in the manufacturing sector," said Kyohei Morita, chief economist at Barclays Capital in Japan, in a note to clients.

Morita expects both the unemployment rate and jobs-applicants ratio to climb to record levels by the end of the year.

Japan's worst jobless rate is 5.5 percent, last hit in April 2003.

Like its Asian neighbors, Japan's economy relies heavily on exports and has been pummeled by the unprecedented drop in global demand triggered last year by the financial crisis. The country's biggest corporate names, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Sony Corp., responded by aggressively cutting production, stockpiles and jobs.

Leaner manufacturers are now working on replenishing inventories to meet an uptick in overseas demand. Massive government stimulus spending around the world, particularly in China, is helping fuel sales of cars, equipment and machinery.

Government data Monday showed that industrial output increased 5.9 percent from the previous month, matching a rise in April that marked the biggest jump since March 1953.

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