Based on the average exchange rate for 2020, the Japanese yen has appreciated by 1.9% against the US dollar since 2016 and increased by 2.1% from 2019 to 2020. Japan’s stronger local currency since 2016 make exports paid for in weaker US dollars relatively more expensive in 2020. Japan’s exports are also relatively costlier from 2019 to 2020 for international buyers starting from Japanese yen.
Japan’s biggest export products by value in 2020 were cars, electronic circuits, automotive parts and accessories, semiconductor-making machinery and highly capital-intensive cruise or cargo ships. In aggregate, those major exports account for 26.7% of overall exports sales from Japan. Those commodities suggest a relatively diversified range of exported goods.
Japan ranks among world-leading nations for exporting cars and automotive parts or accessories and is a major competitor among Asian nations in the international trade of electronic circuits.
From a continental perspective, 60.5% of Japan exports by value were delivered to fellow Asian countries while 21% were sold to North American importers. Japan shipped another 12.9% worth of goods to Europe. Smaller percentages went to Oceania led by Australia (2.4%), Latin America excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean (1.9%) then Africa (1.2%).
Given Japan’s population of 125.8 million people, its total $641.4 billion in 2020 exported products translates to roughly $5,100 for every resident in the East Asian island nation.
Japan’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups categorize the highest dollar value in Japanese global shipments during 2020. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from Japan.
- Vehicles: US$122.6 billion (19.1% of total exports)
- Machinery including computers: $121.8 billion (19%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $102.6 billion (16%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $37.5 billion (5.8%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $25.6 billion (4%)
- Iron, steel: $22.8 billion (3.6%)
- Organic chemicals: $14.9 billion (2.3%)
- Gems, precious metals: $13.3 billion (2.1%)
- Other chemical goods: $12.2 billion (1.9%)
- Ships, boats: $10.8 billion (1.7%)
Japan’s top 10 exports accounted for roughly three-quarters (75.5%) of the overall value of its global shipments.
The gem and precious metals category was the fastest-grower among the top 10 export categories, up by 15.9% from 2019 to 2020. In second place for improving export sales was miscellaneous chemical goods up by 2.2% then plastics (including materials and items made from plastic) posted the third-fastest gain in value thanks to a 1.5% increase.
The leading decliner among Japan’s top 10 export categories was the capital-intensive ships and boats category which fell -21.6% year over year.
Note that the results listed above are at the categorized two-digit Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) code level. For a more granular view of exported goods at the four-digit HTS code level, see the section Searchable List of Japan’s Most Valuable Export Products further down near the bottom of this article.
Japan generated an overall $6.9 billion trade surplus for 2020, reversing -$15.1 billion in red ink one year earlier.
The following types of Japanese product shipments represent positive net exports or a trade balance surplus for 2020. Investopedia defines net exports as the value of a country’s total exports minus the value of its total imports.
In a nutshell, net exports represent the amount by which foreign spending on a home country’s goods or services exceeds or lags the home country’s spending on foreign goods or services.
- Vehicles: US$102.8 billion (Down by -17.8% since 2019)
- Machinery including computers: $54.7 billion (Down by -17.9%)
- Iron, steel: $17.1 billion (Down by -7%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $11.5 billion (Up by 6.5%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $10.6 billion (Up by 17.4%)
- Ships, boats: $10.4 billion (Down by -20.4%)
- Copper: $7.2 billion (Up by 51.9%)
- Other chemical goods: $6 billion (Up by 1%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $5.8 billion (Up by 35.9%)
- Photo/cinematographic goods: $4.4 billion (Down by -4.8%)
Japan has notably positive net exports in the international trade of automobiles thanks to world-leading automotive corporations including Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors. In turn, these cashflows indicate Japan’s strong competitive advantages under the vehicles product category.
Below are exports from Japan that result in negative net exports or product trade balance deficits. These negative net exports reveal product categories where foreign spending on home country Japan’s goods trail Japanese importer spending on foreign products.
- Mineral fuels including oil: -US$97.7 billion (Down by -31.1% since 2018)
- Pharmaceuticals: -$21.1 billion (Up by 1.2%)
- Ores, slag, ash: -$21 billion (Down by -4.5%)
- Knit or crochet clothing, accessories: -$11.8 billion (Down by -12.2%)
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$11.7 billion (Down by -16.6%)
- Meat: -$10 billion (Down by -5.4%)
- Fish: -$8.6 billion (Down by -14.2%)
- Wood: -$8.5 billion (Down by -18%)
- Furniture, bedding, lighting , signs, prefab buildings: -$7.2 billion (Down by -0.8%)
- Miscellaneous textiles, worn clothing: -$7.2 billion (Up by 101.7%)
Japan has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for crude oil, petroleum gases and coal.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate Japan’s competitive disadvantages in the international fossil fuel market, but also represent key opportunities for Japan to improve its position in the global economy through focused innovations.
Japanese Export Companies
Wikipedia lists many of the larger international trade players from Japan.
- Toyota Motor (cars, trucks)
- Japan Tobacco (tobacco)
- Denso (automotive parts)
- Canon (business products, supplies)
- Takeda Pharmaceutical (pharmaceuticals)
- Hitachi (electronics)
- Fanuc (industrial products)
- Panasonic (electronics)
- Astellas Pharma (pharmaceuticals)
- Nippon Steel (iron, steel)
- Mitsubishi Electric (electrical equipment)
According to global trade intelligence firm Zepol, the following companies are also examples of leading Japanese exporters.
- Honda Motor (vehicles, automotive parts)
- Nissan Motor (vehicles, automotive parts)
- Kubota (tractors, excavators, other heavy equipment)
Searchable List of Japan’s Most Valuable Export Products
At the more granular four-digit HTS code level, the following searchable table displays 100 of the most in-demand goods shipped from Japan during 2020. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2019.
|Rank||Japan's Export Product||2020 Value (US$)||Change|
|4||Machinery for making semi-conductors||$23,616,429,000||+4.3%|
|5||Cruise/cargo ships, barges||$10,638,981,000||-22.2%|
|6||Solar power diodes/semi-conductors||$8,950,268,000||+4%|
|10||Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)||$7,964,084,000||-19.9%|
|11||Lower-voltage switches, fuses||$7,096,890,000||-5.3%|
|14||Hot-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products||$6,550,178,000||-10.9%|
|15||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$6,035,731,000||+8.5%|
|16||Piston engine parts||$5,528,734,000||-16.3%|
|17||Processed petroleum oils||$5,517,421,000||-49.6%|
|18||Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations||$5,274,726,000||+19.4%|
|19||Electro-medical equip (e.g. xrays)||$5,227,709,000||-3.8%|
|21||Medication mixes in dosage||$4,899,160,000||+3.6%|
|22||Air or vacuum pumps||$4,878,471,000||-2.6%|
|24||Refined copper, unwrought alloys||$4,697,157,000||+40.8%|
|25||Taps, valves, similar appliances||$4,565,352,000||-1.9%|
|26||Electric storage batteries||$4,537,437,000||-2.5%|
|27||Other measuring/testing machines||$4,403,434,000||-3.7%|
|28||Physical/chemical analysis tools||$4,403,004,000||-4.9%|
|29||Electrical converters/power units||$4,367,164,000||+7.7%|
|30||Optical fiber cables, sheets, plates||$4,140,014,000||-5.5%|
|31||Transmission shafts, gears, clutches||$4,119,837,000||-16%|
|32||Rubber tires (new)||$4,051,572,000||-21.6%|
|33||Chemicals used in electronics||$4,036,159,000||+0.4%|
|37||Chemical industry products/residuals||$3,621,818,000||-0.3%|
|38||Liquid pumps and elevators||$3,582,689,000||-4.2%|
|39||Ball, roller bearings||$3,457,027,000||-18.9%|
|40||Oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers||$3,395,284,000||+13.7%|
|41||Flat-rolled other alloy steel products||$3,395,055,000||-18.3%|
|42||Liquid crystal/laser/optical tools||$3,327,100,000||-6.1%|
|43||Electric motors, generators||$3,117,611,000||+4.9%|
|46||Table games, bowling equipment||$2,887,900,000||+23.4%|
|48||Electric ignition/start equipment||$2,750,618,000||-14.6%|
|49||Electrical/optical circuit boards, panels||$2,748,453,000||-3.3%|
|50||Self-adhesive plastic in rolls||$2,709,092,000||+14.6%|
|51||Iron or steel scrap||$2,664,188,000||+4.9%|
|52||Phone system devices including smartphones||$2,648,581,000||-9.8%|
|54||Electric circuit parts, fuses, switches||$2,614,886,000||-7.6%|
|55||Centrifuges, filters and purifiers||$2,562,432,000||+0.3%|
|57||Iron or steel tubes, pipes||$2,437,750,000||-11.2%|
|58||TV receiver/transmit/digital cameras||$2,406,738,000||-12%|
|59||Iron and steel screws, bolts, nuts, washers||$2,383,228,000||-13.9%|
|60||Rubber/plastic article making machines||$2,299,967,000||-11.7%|
|61||Miscellaneous plastic items||$2,120,513,000||-1.5%|
|64||Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)||$1,996,048,000||-12.2%|
|66||Blood fractions (including antisera)||$1,946,816,000||+102.1%|
|67||Interchangeable hand/machine tools||$1,937,954,000||-16.6%|
|71||Oxometal/peroxometal acid salts||$1,813,674,000||-7.7%|
|72||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$1,792,672,000||+0.9%|
|73||Paint/varnish non-aqueous solution||$1,771,205,000||+6.4%|
|74||TV/radio/radar device parts||$1,758,344,000||-15.9%|
|77||Initiators/accelerators, catalytic preps||$1,724,879,000||+15.2%|
|79||Computer parts, accessories||$1,707,431,000||+13.1%|
|80||Precious metal compounds||$1,698,327,000||+105.8%|
|82||Lenses, prisms, mirrors||$1,610,774,000||-20.1%|
|84||Unrecorded sound media||$1,589,435,000||+2.2%|
|86||Computers, optical readers||$1,585,068,000||-6.7%|
|88||Iron or non-alloy steel products (semi-finished)||$1,413,963,000||+3.5%|
|90||Vinyl chloride polymers||$1,346,683,000||-4%|
|91||Vulcanized rubber items||$1,333,666,000||-12.1%|
|92||Electrical lighting/signaling equpment, defrosters||$1,329,636,000||-14%|
|93||Other machine parts, accessories||$1,289,819,000||-20.4%|
|94||Copper waste, scrap||$1,267,300,000||+32.8%|
|95||Electric motor parts||$1,242,882,000||+25.8%|
|96||Heterocyclics, nucleic acids||$1,234,959,000||-7.6%|
|97||Metal soldering/hot-spray equipment||$1,234,843,000||-0.1%|
|99||Other food preparations||$1,208,480,000||+45.2%|
|100||Miscellaneous engines, motors||$1,204,955,000||-11.3%|
These 100 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$469.5 billion or 73.2% by value for all products exported from Japan during 2020.
In macroeconomic terms, Japan’s total exported goods represent 12.3% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2020 ($5.236 trillion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 12.3% for exports to overall GDP per PPP in 2020 mirrors the same metric for 2019, seeming to indicate a relatively stagnant reliance on products sold on international markets for Japan’s total economic performance.
Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. Japan’s unemployment rate was 2.9% at November 2020, up from an average 2.433% for 2020 according to the International Monetary Fund.
See also Japan’s Top 10 Imports, Japan’s Top Trading Partners, Top Japanese Trade Balances and Japan’s Top 10 Major Export Companies
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International Monetary Fund, Exchange Rates selected indicators (National Currency per U.S. dollar, period average). Accessed on May 7, 2021
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on May 7, 2021
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on May 7, 2021
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on May 7, 2021
Richest Country Reports, Key Statistics Powering Global Wealth. Accessed on May 7, 2021
Wikipedia, List of Companies of Japan. Accessed on May 7, 2021
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on May 7, 2021
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on May 7, 2021
Zepol’s company summary highlights by country. Accessed on May 7, 2021