Japanese exports to China rose for the first time in seven months in February, the government announced Thursday, though analysts said the gain was distorted by the timing of the Lunar New Year holiday.
China is Japan's top trading partner, but the Asian giant's economic growth has been slowing as Beijing tries to pull off a delicate rebalancing towards consumer spending from exports and government spending, even as fears of a "hard landing" are rising.
Japan's shipments to China rose 5.1 percent in February from the same period last year, the first gain since July, the finance ministry said.
The increase was led by automobiles, while metal processing machinery and engines were also strong, the ministry said.
The result also contributed to Japan recording an overall trade surplus of 242.8 billion yen ($2.15 billion) -- the first in two months -- though falling oil prices were seen as the key contributor.
Marcel Thieliant, an economist at capital Economics, cautioned against reading too much into the export figures.
"Around half of Japan’s exports end up in countries that celebrate Lunar New Year, and shifts in the timing of the festivities tend to affect trade volumes," he wrote in a note.
Overall, Japanese exports fell 4.0 percent in February from the same period last year, led by steel exports, marking the fifth straight monthly decline.
Imports, meanwhile, declined 14.2 percent, largely due to sliding prices of liquefied natural gas and oil into resource-poor Japan.
"Import prices of energy, such as crude oil and LNG, have lifted Japan's trade balance," said Junichi Makino, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities.
Exports remained "weak", but "downward pressure" on them was also weakening, he added, while auto exports remained solid.
Thieliant also warned, however, that the trend is towards a higher energy bill for Japan in coming months.
"The bigger picture is that crude oil prices are rebounding while the yen should weaken, so the energy import bill should rise again soon," he wrote in a note.
The trade data are the latest snapshot for the world's third-largest economy, which shrank 0.3 percent in the October-December quarter in another blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's bid to slay nagging deflation and kick-start the economy.
The Bank of Japan, the central bank, announced a negative interest rate in January in a rare move to boost corporate investments, but critics have panned it as a desperate move and questioned its overall effectiveness.