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Japan Encouraged by Economic Growth

June 9, 2000

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan shrugged off poorer-than-expected growth figures Friday, encouraged by signs the nation’s economic slide may be turning around.

Gross domestic product growth _ the sum of all goods and services produced _ fell short the government’s 0.6 percent target, according to the data.

But Japanese officials stressed that the economy halted a two-quarter slide, growing at a 2.4 percent rate in the first three months of this year.

They also said that the 0.5 percent growth for fiscal 1999 ending March 31 came after two straight years of contractions _ a sign the economy may be rebounding.

``We have definitely attained growth,″ chief government spokesman Mikio Aoki told reporters. ``The correct interpretation is that better times are ahead.″

With parliamentary elections approaching June 25, the economy is expected to emerge as a major campaign issue.

The opposition is expected to criticize the ruling coalition for not meeting the target number.

``Of course, plus is better than minus,″ said Yukio Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition group. ``I wonder if it’s accurate. It doesn’t match up with what everyone is feeling.″

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori defended the government policies as being on the right track. The government is aiming for 1.0 percent growth for this fiscal year.

``The key isn’t the specific figure. It’s that we achieved positive growth,″ he said.

Friday’s figures for the first three months of this year showed a 1.8 percent rise in personal spending and 6.6 percent surge in housing investment, compared to the previous quarter.

``There’s a lot of promise there,″ said Michael Naldrett, an economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson in Tokyo.

Naldrett noted that only once since 1973 has growth been better than the latest quarter _ in the January-March period of 1996, when the economy grew by 2.6 percent.

Investors were disappointed, however.

The data sent the major barometer for the Tokyo Stock Exchange falling and boosted the U.S. dollar against the Japanese yen.

The benchmark 225-issue Nikkei Stock Average closed at 16,861.91 points, down 142.43, or 0.84 percent. The dollar bought 106.46 yen in late Tokyo trading, up from its late New York level of 106.00 yen overnight.

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