TOKYO (AP) _ Weeks before Japan announces fiscal 1999 year-end national debt statistics, the Finance Ministry said Friday that maintaining a record-high amount of outstanding bonds will be inevitable under current economic conditions.

Japan had nearly $3.35 trillion in outstanding government bonds _ more than any other nation _ as of Sept. 30, 1999, the most recent Finance Ministry figure. New data will be released on March 24.

As a result of heavy borrowing, Japan, the world's second-richest country behind the United States, is also among the world's most indebted. The ministry said its total debt forecast for 1999 exceeds $5.6 trillion.

However, it will be impossible for the government to scale back on raising money through bonds until Japan shows stronger signs of economic growth, a Finance Ministry official said Friday, demanding anonymity.

Japan has been struggling to emerge from its worst economic downturn in over 50 years. The economy started growing last year, but then shrank in July-September. Government officials say it probably also contracted in October-December.

Meanwhile, the gap in outstanding government bonds in Japan and the United States has grown.

In 1999, Japanese government bond issuances rose 15 percent from the year before, while those in the United States fell 3 percent during the same period, according to government statistics.

Outstanding U.S. government bonds totaled $3.23 trillion as of September 1999, below the Japanese figure.

Fiscal conservatives say wasteful public works spending has swelled Japan's ballooning public debt. Despite the criticism, the Japanese government has steadfastly continued to issue bonds to make ends meet.

Since the Asian currency crisis of 1997, Japan has borrowed massively to pay for such projects as road and bridge construction aimed at reviving the economy.